In This Corner…

Published: February 24, 2014

By Jim Lichtman
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“I think this case will be remembered because it is the first case of this sort since we stopped trying people in America for witchcraft, because here we have done our best to turn back the tide that has sought to force itself upon this modern world, of testing every fact in science by a religious dictum.”

That’s Clarence Darrow in 1925, arguing in defense of Thomas Scopes. The 24-year-old Dayton, Tennessee school teacher was on trial for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution to his class.

Two stories caught my attention this month, because of a disturbing trend which would allow an education group and a state to set faith-based standards.

Bill Nye, the “Science Guy,” stood at the podium in Petersburg, Kentucky along with Creation Museum founder Ken Ham, to debate “How did we get here?”

While Ham is known for teaching that the planet’s age is only 6,000 years, Nye points to overwhelming scientific evidence showing that the Earth is “billions and billions” of years old.

My first thought when I heard this story was: haven’t we settled this issue, already? Apparently not in Petersburg, Kentucky.

“The Bible is the word of God,” Ham said.

“If we accept Mr. Ham’s point of view,” Nye said, “that the Bible serves as a science text and he and his followers will interpret that for you, I want you to consider what that means. It means that Mr. Ham’s word is to be more respected than what you can observe in nature, what you can find in your backyard in Kentucky.”

When a member of the audience asked Nye where atoms and matter come from, Nye said that scientists are continuing to find out.

Ham, however, already had the answer. “Bill, I just want to let you know, that there’s actually a book out there that tells us where matter came from. And the very first sentence in that book says, ‘In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth.’ ”

Of course, what is immediately striking is the similarity to the courtroom debate between lawyer Clarence Darrow and politician and Bible literalist William Jennings Bryan

While all this makes good theater on one level, on another, it’s disturbing to think that school-age children are being taught science by someone who, 89 years later, still advocates that the Earth is only 6,000 years old.

“There are billions of stars, Mr. Ham,” Nye said. “How could there be billions of stars more distant than 6,000 years if the world’s only 6,000 years old?”

In his summation, Darrow points out the true pitfalls of teaching the Bible over scientific fact, some of which has already taken place.

“If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private school… Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one you can do the other. Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding.

“… After awhile, Your Honor it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until, with flying banners and beating drums, we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots burned men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.”

Meanwhile, in the sleepy little hamlet of Arizona, The New York Times reported Friday (Feb. 21), that the state legislature passed a law that entitles business owners, based on their religious beliefs, to refuse service to gay or lesbian couples.

Actions such as these have already taken place in New Mexico, Washington State and Colorado. Now, however, we have a state that has specific legislation to make such actions legal. The bill is awaiting Governor Jan Brewer’s decision by the end of the week.

“In America, people should be free to live and work according to their faith, and the government shouldn’t be able to tell us we can’t do that,” said Joseph E. La Rue, the legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization based in Scottsdale, Arizona, that advocates religious liberty… “Faith shouldn’t be something we have to leave inside our house.”

Nor should faith be used as a weapon of discrimination, for that is exactly what this bill intends. (“Exercise of religion is defined as the ability to act or refusal to act in a manner substantially motivated by a religious belief, whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief (A.R.S. § 41-1493).”)

“Religious freedom is a fundamental right, but it’s not a blank check to harm others or impose our faith on our neighbors,” Daniel Mach of the American Civil Liberties Union said. “Over the years, we as a nation have rejected efforts to invoke religion to justify discrimination in the marketplace, and there’s no reason to turn back the clock now.”

Next month the Supreme Court will hear two cases in which businesses are looking for exemptions from providing insurance coverage for contraception to their employees, based on the religious beliefs of the companies’ owners.

“In June [2013], the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, in Denver, ruled for Hobby Lobby, a corporation owned by a family whose members have said they try to run the business on Christian principles,” New York Times writer Adam Liptak wrote. “The company, which operates a chain of arts-and-crafts stores and has more than 15,000 full-time employees of many faiths, objected to a requirement in the health care law that large employers provide their workers with comprehensive insurance coverage for contraception.”

This is not about religious freedom. This is about intolerance in which one group would be permitted to legally impose its will on another just as Dayton, Tennessee attempted to do in 1925. From an ethical standpoint, Clarence Darrow makes the best case for tolerance:

“There are people who believed that organic life and the plants and the animals and man and the mind of man, and the religion of man are the subjects of evolution… And along comes somebody who says, ‘we have got to believe it as I believe it. It is a crime to know more than I know’ …

“It makes the Bible the yardstick to measure every man’s intellect… Are your mathematics good? Turn to Elijah 1:2. Is your philosophy good? See II Samuel 3. Is your astronomy good? See Genesis 2:7. Is your chemistry good? See Deuteronomy 3:6…

“But your life and my life and the life of every American citizen depends after all upon the tolerance and forbearance of his fellow-man. If men are not tolerant, if men cannot respect each other’s opinions, if men cannot live and let live, then no man’s life is safe, no man’s life is safe.”


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