Good News from Texas on the Science Education Front!

06/24/2010 03:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I need to begin with what could have been an embarrassing admission. More often than not, when I read material written by one of the major creationist organizations, I have great difficulty making sense of it. Although I've been reasonably confident that the fault was with the nature of the writing, my ego isn't so large that I didn't question my own abilities.

Today, however, I feel fully vindicated. Judge Sam Sparks of the U.S. District Court in Austin, Texas put my mind (and competency) fully at ease by his recent ruling in a case pitting the Institute for Creation Research Graduate School against the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. I'll discuss the import of the ruling in a moment, but first I want to present the one paragraph that made my day. Judge Sparks wrote:

[T]he Court will proceed to address each of ICRGS's causes of action in turn, to the extent that it is able to understand them. It appears that although the Court has twice required Plaintiff to re-plead and set forth a short and plain statement of the relief requested, Plaintiff is entirely unable to file a complaint which is not overly verbose, disjointed, incoherent, maundering and full of irrelevant information.

Wow! I certainly couldn't have said it better: "verbose, disjointed, incoherent, maundering and full of irrelevant information." Judge Sparks has become my new personal hero.

And it turns out that his legal ruling is every bit as important as is his literary taste.

The Institute for Creation Research (ICR) moved to Texas from California back in 2007. At the time it had been offering masters degrees in science education in California and assumed that it would be able to do so in Texas as well. As difficult as it might be to believe given all else that has been happening with education in Texas of late, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board refused to grant permission to offer the graduate degree in science education in 2008. ICR went to court to challenge the decision and Judge Sparks denied all portions of their appeal.

Every aspect of this bizarre situation is fascinating. California approved ICR's graduate degree because ICR was accredited by an organization known as the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS -- please don't ask me what happened to the second "C," I have no idea). Since California recognizes TRACS, it had no choice but to approve ICR's graduate degree. This approval for a degree in science education was granted despite the fact that TRACS member institutions must, among other things, affirm "the divine work of non-evolutionary creation including persons in God's image."

It's worth noting that TRACS was founded by the late Henry Morris, past president of ICR. Additionally, his oldest son, Henry Morris III, currently CEO of ICR, sits on its board.

Texas, it seems, doesn't recognize TRACS, so degree approval wasn't automatic. When ICR filed its application for approval, scientists and educators across the state argued forcefully that it made no sense for students to be granted a science degree for studying biblical creationism. Raymund Paredes, the Texas Commissioner of Higher Education, recommended against approval saying, among other things, that "since the proposed degree program inadequately covers key areas of science, it cannot be properly designated either as 'science' or 'science education.'" The Higher Education Coordinating Board unanimously affirmed his recommendation and denied approval. When ICR appealed that decision, they found themselves in front of Judge Sparks.

ICR apparently tried a kitchen sink legal strategy. They argued in their "verbose, disjointed, incoherent, maundering" manner that the Coordinating Board had no authority over them, that the Board's decision violated their first amendment rights to freely exercise their religion as well as their rights to freedom of speech. They claimed that they were denied their constitutionally mandated equal protection rights as well as their due process rights and, also, their rights under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Judge Sparks tossed out each and every one of these arguments and he did so convincingly. For example, he quoted numerous experts who demonstrated that ICR was in the business of religious indoctrination rather than science education. The very nature of ICR's curriculum was antithetical to what science is all about. The Judge's ruling noted that ICR's graduate catalog made it clear that the supernatural was part of science as conceived by ICR, but certainly not by the scientific community. ICR's catalog also asserted that "all theories of origin and development that involve evolution in any form are false." He concluded that the state has a right to demand that science be taught appropriately and free of religious bias. Separating the teachings of science and religion does not discriminate against religion.

There's yet one additional point about Judge Sparks's ruling that is fascinating. He didn't just rule against ICR; he issued a summary judgment against them. In legal terms that means that he concluded that the case they presented was so weak that rather than holding a trial he simply ruled against them and tossed them out of court. As he described it, to reach a summary judgment, the judge first "construes all facts and inferences in the light most favorable" to the plaintiff and then, even under these best possible conditions, asks whether a trial could possibly reach a conclusion in favor of the plaintiff. He concluded that their case was so non-existent that a trial would be a waste of time and money.

Such is the state of creationism -- even, this time around, in Texas.

Oh, just in case anyone thinks that Sam Sparks is a liberal, activist judge, it's worth nothing that he was appointed to the bench by President George H. W. Bush. He also was named the Trial Judge of 2005 by the Texas Chapter of the Board of Trial Advocates.

Ok, I just can't help myself, I have to type it one more time: "overly verbose, disjointed, incoherent, maundering and full of irrelevant information."