The fund-raising letter was a beaut, all right, a renegade, incendiary masterpiece, and, by golly, it made George Bush furious
Big Bang versus a Big Being
The thorny debate over teaching creationism in school resurfaces in British Columbia
The four teenagers sitting around a black-topped lab table in the Yale Secondary School in Abbotsford, B.C., are bright, articulate, confident—and diverse in their views. The issue they are debating is a large one. Indeed, it is arguably the biggest question of them all: how did life begin? By evolution or by divine creation, with a Big Bang or a Big Being? Michael Pue, 18, is undecided: his Baptist Christian faith inclines him towards divine creation at the same time, he says, as his growing knowledge of science propels him towards evolution. Roman Catholic Jennifer Marston, 17, is a creationist; she rejects the idea that man shares ancestry with apes. Emma Martin,
17, and raised an Anglican, and Kevin Buller, a 16-year-old of no particular religion, are firmly in the evolutionary camp. What all four youngsters agree on, however, is that the long-simmering debate over how to teach the origins of life, which has pitted their school’s board of trustees against the provincial minister of education, is a tempest in a test tube. Says Pue: “Personally, I don’t see what the big deal is.”
Critics of the Abbotsford school board, which oversees the education of 15,000 pupils in five high schools in Abbotsford, 65 km east of Vancouver, have less trouble identifying the problem. “The issue,” asserts independent video producer Scott Goodman, 43, the board’s most outspoken challenger, “is preserving freedom of religion.” In Goodman’s view, a 12-year-old board policy that requires its teachers “to expose students to both divine creation and the evolutionary concepts of life’s origins,” is a veiled attack by Christian extremists on the entire body of science and a gross violation of the principle that the state should neither meddle in, nor serve, any particular religion. It is a view that British Columbia’s education minister, Arthur Charbonneau, shares. Abbotsford’s seven elected school board members, Charbonneau told Maclean’s last week, “are trying to force teachers to put a religious theory on the same level as evolution in a science class.” Declaring that to be intolerable in a secular and multicultural society, as well as illegal, Charbonneau acted on Goodman’s complaint and gave the Abbotsford board until June 16 to rescind its policy. Declared Charbonneau: ‘There will be only one outcome to this: every district will comply with the School Act.”
For its part, the board agrees with its four Yale Secondary students that the matter is being blown out of proportion. “The board has no interest in making this an issue,” its chairman, John Sutherland, dean of business management at Trinity Western University, a Christian teaching institution, told Maclean’s. “No one in Abbotsford that I’m aware of is making this an issue.” Calling the apparent bad blood between the minister and Abbotsford’s school trustees a creation of the Vancouver media, Sutherland added: “It’s all been inflicted on us from the outside.” He then cut short an interview, declining to answer any further questions.
But for some residents of the growing farm and bedroom community, the issue is real indeed. “It is much, much bigger than biology,” asserts Vicky Robinson, president of the 1,000-member Abbotsford Teachers Association. According to Robinson, evangelical Christians, supported by Abbotsford’s many fundamentalist congregations, are trying to impose their moral views on their neighbors. “They take the high moral road,” she says, “as if their way is the right way and no one else’s.”
One parent who strongly agrees is Lorraine Lainteigne, president of the city’s arts council. Lainteigne became alarmed about the assertiveness of the religious right wing in her community in 1993,
after school officials forbade her 18-year-old daughter, Katherine, to perform a short play she had written as part of a scholarship application. Entitled If Men Had Periods, it dealt with teenage sexuality, a subject the board considered inappropriate. Afterward, Lainteigne says, Katherine received several obscenely worded death threats from telephone callers who labelled her a “spawn of Satan.” Says Lainteigne now: “We’ve got gospellers of hate here. The whole creationism agenda is to impose this kind of Christianity on the whole community. It disturbs me and frightens me.”
Certainly, this is far from the first collision between Christian and secular morality in a region widely considered to be British Columbia’s Bible Belt. Amalgamated in January with neighboring Matsqui to form a municipality of 100,000 people, Abbotsford is tucked into the verdant Fraser Valley’s lush pasture land and tulip fields, cupped between towering peaks of the Coast Mountain range. In addition to Trinity Western, it is home to a maximum security penitentiary, a deeply
rooted Sikh community (which runs its own private school), and a growing number of commuters of many faiths and backgrounds who daily make the 90-minute drive on traffic-clogged freeways to Vancouver for work. Asserts Yale Secondary’s principal, George Peary, a municipal alderman for the past nine years: “We are not all Elmer Gantrys or religious zealots.”
Still, the area’s dozens of evangelical and fundamentalist churches, Bible colleges and flourishing private Christian schools reinforce its reputation for deep religious faith. That image has been bolstered by previous controversies. Earlier this year, critics accused the local library board of censorship after it attempted to ban a weekly gay and lesbian-oriented newspaper published in Vancouver from its shelves.
Observed Cindy Filipenko, editor of the since-reinstated X-tra West “I think the religious right has an agenda that is, basically, freedom for themselves and not for anybody else.”
Polls substantiate the region’s strong back-to-basics Christian bent. In a survey of 110 local people taken in November, 1993, CV Marketing Research of Abbotsford found that 56 per cent of them believed the Bible to be a literal record of God’s word—nearly twice as many as said the same thing in a nationwide poll commissioned earlier the same year by Maclean’s. More recently, in a provincewide poll of 501 people, Vancouver’s MarkTrend Research found that 55 per cent of residents surveyed in the lower Fraser Valley agreed that “government should do more to support basic Christian values”—compared with 33 per cent in metropolitan Vancouver.
Many local politicians share those views. School board chairman Sutherland, who gives Bible classes in his Mennonite faith, is also a right-to-life activist. Board vice-chairman Paul Chamberlain is another evangelical-minded Trinity Western faculty member. And the region’s rookie Fiberal MLA, John van Dongen, rattled his party badly when he insisted, in the wake of his byelection victory on May 3, that he would seek to limit access to abortions, contrary to party policy. Van Dongen, a Roman Catholic who says he believes in the divine creation of the planets, Earth and life in six days, adds: “There is legitimate reason to have it in the school system.”
School trustee Gerda Fandrich could not agree more. A small businesswoman and former teacher with four grown children, as well as an evangelical Christian, Fandrich asserts: “There is scien-
tific evidence that will support creationist theory, and there is scientific evidence against the theory of evolution in its entirety. And it should be taught.” While Fandrich insists that she has no desire to impose her religious beliefs on students, she adds: “It is also not my role as a school trustee to make sure that any reference to Christianity is deleted from discussion in school.” With that in mind, Fandrich is among the strongest backers of the Abbotsford board’s teaching policy.
How that policy is applied in practice, however, seems both less provocative than many of its critics assert—and less innocent of religious overtones than Fandrich pretends. At Yale Secondary, biology teacher Trevor Fowler opens his discussion of the origins of life, a part of the Grade 11 curriculum, by drawing a distinction between knowing the material and accepting it. “I make it clear that no one has to believe in evolution, but they are expected to understand it,” he says. Acknowledging that evolutionary theory has weaknesses, Fowler also tells his students that there are other views about the beginnings of life, frequently citing both aboriginal and Christian creation beliefs as examples. He makes it plain, however, that he will teach only evolution, not theories of divine creation, because “I do not consider them to be scientific.” There is no question that Yale’s students learn their biology. They consistently outscore students from most other B.C. schools in provincewide examinations. While all B.C. students in the exams averaged between 65 and 67 per cent in each of the past three academic years, the average mark for Yale Secondary students has been above 88 per cent. Concludes Fowler, a Presbyterian who says he leans towards evolutionary theory: “If I was teaching in a different district, I would handle it exactly as I have here.” But when Fowler’s students ask him for more information about the creationist argument, he does not discourage them. Instead, he refers them to reference materials in the school library and at the school district office, as well as encouraging them to seek out other sources. He even keeps several copies of one popular creationist text, Of Pandas and People, on his classroom bookshelf.
What students who explore that material encounter is clearly sufficient to set off alarm bells among those who value the separation of church and state, not to mention science. Much of it is drawn from publications of the California-based Institute for Creation Research, an explicitly evangelical organization that requires its employees to affirm annually their faith in fundamentalist dogma, including the infallibility of the Bible and the divine creation of the universe “in six literal days.” There is no material representing the creation stories of faiths other than Christianity.
Grudgingly, Fandrich acknowledged last week that the board’s reference material “has to be reviewed, and we will do that.” But the board, four of whose seven members are strongly identified with the religious right, will have to do more than that to meet Charbonneau’s ultimatum. A decision to rescind the controversial policy may well anger some evangelical supporters. But many parents and students plainly share the minister’s view that religion and science should not be mixed—at least not in a school serving taxpayers of many faiths. Notes student Jennifer Marston: “I believe in creationism, but if you want to learn Adam and Eve, they can teach it in Sunday School.” Many of her fellow Christians, as well as others, are likely to say amen to that.
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