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Monkey business 

The parents behind Cobb County's federal case over evolution

Over the course of four days last month, Marjorie Rogers could be found on the 17th floor of the Richard B. Russell Federal Building, in the courtroom of Judge Clarence Cooper. She sat a few rows behind the defense attorneys, on one of the pine benches installed for the public. She usually sat alone, and with each witness who testified, she took extensive notes on a legal pad. When she heard something she disagreed with, which was often, she bit her lip and shook her head.

Although she is an attorney, Rogers was in Cooper's courtroom on a personal matter. Two years earlier, she had led a petition drive opposed to the biology textbooks that the Cobb County school board was poised to adopt. Rogers is a six-day creationist, and she believes Darwin's theory of evolution is fatally flawed. Presented with the signatures of 2,300 like-minded Cobb residents, the school board pasted a sticker in each book, reminding students that evolution is a "theory, not a fact" and should be "critically considered."

As it happened, Rogers was the first witness called in last month's trial over the constitutionality of the stickers. Rogers was in the awkward position of being a witness for the plaintiff; with each response she gave to Michael Manely, the Marietta attorney representing the ACLU and the five parents who sued to remove the labels, she was helping to build his case that the stickers violate the separation of church and state.

Manely needed to show that more than just being a sop to creationist parents in the Cobb County district, the stickers were a thinly veiled reference to the divine. On the stand, Rogers repeated that she wanted other theories about the origin of life -- as long as they were grounded in science -- to be taught in schools. "Could one of those theories be creationism?" Manely asked.

"It could be," Rogers said.

"Intelligent design?"

"It could be."

When she was finally excused, she took her seat back on the wooden benches. To a friend, she whispered, "Well, that was a singularly unpleasant experience."

Judge Cooper's decision in the case is expected any day now. And although it won't be binding on the rest of the country, or even outside Cobb County, the decision could have profound implications nationwide in the ongoing battle by fundamentalist Christians to replace -- or at least augment -- scientific theories about evolution with ideas based on little more than faith.

The Scopes trial of 1925, which pitted Clarence Darrow against William Jennings Bryan, did little to settle the question of evolution being taught in public schools. Indeed, evolutionists actually lost that trial, and laws against teaching evolution remained on the books of many states well into the 1960s. Even today, crusades to restrict its teaching seem to pop up, mushroom-like, throughout the country.

In a small town in Wisconsin this fall, the school board unanimously voted to allow "various theories/models of origins" to be taught in science classes. In a rural district in Pennsylvania, the school board has gone so far as to require that students learn alternative theories to evolution. And in Georgia earlier this year, the state education superintendent, Kathy Cox, proposed striking the word "evolution" from the state curriculum, only to reverse herself days later after a firestorm of controversy erupted.

Cobb County has had an equally schizophrenic approach to evolution. For years, teachers opted to just ignore the topic altogether. In one case, pages covering the origin of Earth were deleted by the publisher, at the request of the district.

By 2002, though, things seemed to have settled down. Evolution had become part of the Cobb County science curriculum. Then Marjorie Rogers learned the district was looking to buy new textbooks. She decided to check things out.

Rogers is 52. She and her husband live with their two sons in a sprawling house they built not long ago off Burnt Hickory Road in north Cobb County. She remembers when this part of Cobb was mostly farmland. "You used to have to pack a lunch to come out here," she says with a laugh.

Today, the county is home to 650,000 people, more than twice its population 25 years ago. With that expansion has come the obvious problems -- most notably overdevelopment and traffic. Barrett Parkway, just a few hundred yards from Rogers' front door, is a clogged artery of cars and SUVs lurching west from I-75 every evening.

Cobb's explosive growth has cut into its white majority, but only slightly into its rampant conservatism. This is the county that has elected congressmen such as Newt Gingrich, Bob Barr, and the late Larry McDonald, who, at the time the passenger jet he was in was shot down by Soviet warplanes in 1983, was head of the John Birch Society. In 1993, Cobb County commissioners passed a resolution declaring that gay lifestyles were "incompatible" with community standards. The resulting uproar forced Olympic organizers to re-route the path of the Olympic torch around Cobb County three years later.

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