When you write for a newspaper, sometimes people tell you things. Last year, while substitute teaching, one day I was jawing with other teachers when the theory of evolution came up. Knowing that the teaching of evolution is a hotly-contested theater of America’s Culture War, and also that I wrote for the Portland Phoenix, someone said to me, there’s a biology teacher at Yarmouth (Maine) High School who has refused to teach evolution for years because of her religious beliefs. You should write about her. Of course, as this person parted with their little bon-mot, they sneered, the clear implication being that they thought that an educator who refused to teach evolution, the very foundation of her subject, biology, deserved to be held up to public ridicule.
Evolution was certainly a hot topic yet again. It was everywhere. That summer saw an unexpected declaration from Christoph Cardinal Schonberg, of Vienna, a man very close to Pope Benedict XVI, stating that the widely held belief that Pope John Paul II had accepted evolution was a misinterpretation of what J.P. the Deuce had actually said. In Kansas, some education officials were trying to alter standards in a way that would ensure “Intelligent Design,” creationism’s modern progeny, was taught in classrooms alongside evolution. In Dover, Pennsylvania, eight families sued the school board to have Intelligent Design removed from the curriculum, claiming that it promoted Biblical creationism, therefore violating the constitutionally mandated separation of Church and State. (A federal judge recently agreed, declaring that "Intelligent Design is not science.") But months before, when local voters had thrown from office all eight Dover school board members who were up for reelection, an angry Pat Robertson, the “preacher” who had called for the assassination of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez earlier in 2005, went on television and said that Dover, Pennsylvania, had “voted God out” of their town, which meant that in the event of a future disaster there, they had better not pray to Him, because He wouldn’t be listening. Now that’s old-time religion.
All of this eighty years after the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, in Dayton, Tennessee, and a half-century after Inherit the Wind, the play and eventual film that dramatized that trial, first appeared on Broadway. I had to admit that this biology teacher lead was intriguing, but I filed it away in my brain with other things that I intended to get to because I wasn’t sure how pertinent it all was. Did Mainers care about it as much as the tiny class of folks who actually prosecute the culture wars?
Turns out that, yes, they do. Here’s how I realized that: In late August I was making a brief appearance at the annual reunion of my mother’s side of the family, down in Sanford on the banks of the mighty Mousam River. There was horseshoes, swimming, grilling, and an open defiance of the alcohol ban in the town Recreation Area. All the usual stuff, and there I was in the middle of it talking with two older cousins of mine whom I rarely see. Their names are Matthew and Donald. In the course of chatting, Donald, an avid Phoenix reader, asked what I was working on for the paper. Without giving it too much thought, I mentioned that I might look into a high school biology teacher who had apparently refused to teach evolution because of her religious beliefs.