At a May 4 town hall meeting in Manalapan, Gov. Chris Christie fielded a question about his views on creationism being taught in schools alongside Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
According to news accounts, Christie told the questioner he believes local school boards “should be making those decisions about what curriculum is being taught in your schools.”
He added, “I think it’s really a dangerous area for a governor who stands up from the top of the state to say you should teach this, you shouldn’t teach that.”
At a May 12 press conference in Jersey City, Christie elaborated on the question. “Evolution is required teaching,” Christie reportedly said. “If there’s a certain school district that also wants to teach creationism” – which he said, according to The Star Ledger, he was not endorsing – “that’s not something we should decide in Trenton.”
Christie’s remarks have prompted some to speculate that the he was leaving the door open for the teaching of creationism as science in New Jersey’s public schools, potentially reigniting the historically charged debate that reached its apex with the Scopes Trial of 1925 in which a high school biology teacher in Tennessee was accused of breaking the law for teaching evolution. Others have speculated that the comments, along with his more recent reply of “none of your business” in response to a reporter’s question as to whether Christie believes in creationism or evolution, were intended to appeal to religious conservatives Christie would wish to woo in a potential 2012 bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
Christie’s office had not responded by press time to The Jewish Standard’s request for comment. However Alan Guenther, spokesman for New Jersey’s department of education, told the Standard, “the governor is not advocating teaching creationism.” Guenther said that while the teaching of the theory of evolution is required in New Jersey public schools and the teaching of creationism is not, neither is the latter banned from discussion.
“There are standards in New Jersey and schools are required to teach evolution,” said Guenther. “Schools must teach what is required. They can offer additional material if they like but they cannot supplant or replace what is required.”
Guenther stressed that no school district in New Jersey has attempted to teach creationism as science in place of teaching Darwin’s theory.
Local high school administrators spoke with the Standard about their approaches in handling subject matter related to Darwin’s theory of evolution as well as creationism, or the religious doctrine that God created life as described in Genesis.
From a modern Orthodox perspective, there is no conflict between creationism and science, according to Kalman Stein, principal of The Frisch School in Paramus.
“We do teach creationism in the sense that we study the first chapters of Genesis and accept that as the account that God wants us to have,” Stein told the Standard. “At the same time, we see no conflict between science and religion and we fully believe the account of creation and modern science do not conflict.”
Science teachers at Frisch teach Darwin’s theory, but they also discuss Jewish theological perspectives on this issue, according to Stein.
“We teach modern science as it is taught in any high school that takes science seriously,” he said, adding that Darwin’s theory of evolution, while “it is a theory,” is presented as the prevailing scientific theory on the origins of humankind.
He added, “We talk about the religious aspects so [the students] see how they connect. Either the teacher or another member of the faculty will talk about the modern Orthodox approach.”
From a modern Orthodox perspective, it is possible to believe both in Darwin’s theory and the account of humankind’s evolution given in Genesis, Stein said.
“We can believe in the science of the world being billions of years old and at the same time believe God created that world and that he created it in six days” – if, he explained, the six days are not interpreted literally.
“Genesis was not meant to be a science text, it was meant to be the beginning of our faith in God’s dominion over the world,” Stein said. “If the sixth day of creation lasted millions and millions of years, we have no reason not to believe what scientists tell us.”
He added that, in the view of several prominent physicists, the account of creation in Genesis jibes perfectly with the big bang theory.
“There are several religious physicists who insist they can show modern physics and the first chapter of Genesis fit together perfectly,” Stein said. “For us, it matters that God created man, in whatever way he did it…. It has no religious significance for us how it came about that man was created.”
He added that in science classes at Frisch, instructors discuss numerous moral and religious issues as they relate to science, such as genetic engineering and the potential for its abuse.
Regarding whether creationism should be taught in the public schools, Stein said, “That’s more of a political question,” adding that his school does not take a position on that issue.
Jack Lorenz, principal of Ridgewood High School, told the Standard that his school teaches Darwin’s theory in biology class.
In terms of the creationism/evolution debate, he said Ridgewood High has not engaged students in this debate, and “if we did there would be a balanced viewpoint of perspectives from both sides.”
He added, “Some places have comparative religion classes, and the curriculum invites that dialogue. Our high school does not have comparative religion classes.”
Asked whether, were the school board to request a comparative religion class, he would object to the teaching of creationism as part of a lesson regarding religious pluralism and tolerance, he said it might be acceptable “if a district has clear policy and there are plenty of safeguards there to prevent a problem.”
He said that while some “conservative fundamentalist parents” have expressed concern over discussions of birth control methods in health class, he has not received any complaints about the teaching of Darwin’s theory.
Guenther also discussed the issue in terms of tolerance for divergent ideas.
“No question, New Jersey public schools teach evolution, [but] we do not ban other topics from discussion,” he said.