Sticky issue: creationists question Darwin's theory of evolution. Credit: NATURE

A court in Georgia has overturned a suburban Atlanta school policy that required a disclaimer about evolution to be placed in science textbooks.

Cobb County School District — the second largest in Georgia, with more than 100,000 students — started placing stickers in newly adopted high-school biology textbooks in the spring of 2002. The stickers read: “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”

But five local parents, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, sued the school district. They claimed the stickers inhibit the teaching of evolution and promote faith-based alternative views on the origins of life, including creationism and ‘intelligent design’.

On 13 January, Clarence Cooper, a judge at the district court in Atlanta, ruled that the sticker “misleads students regarding the significance and value of evolution in the scientific community”.

By placing stickers in science books, “the school board has effectively improperly entangled itself with religion by appearing to take a position”, he wrote in his ruling, and impressionable students “are likely to view the message on the sticker as a union of church and state”. This undermines the first amendment, the judge ruled. So, the stickers must go.

“This ruling is bigger than evolution,” says Jeffrey Selman, a computer programmer and one of the parents who filed the law-suit. “This will defend keeping science education pure.”

The Cobb County Board of Education issued a written statement saying it was “disappointed” in the ruling, maintaining that “textbook stickers are a reasonable and evenhanded guide to science instruction”.

The board is expected to take legal advice sometime this week on whether or not to appeal, says Doug Goodwin, spokesman for Cobb County schools.

Textbook disclaimers are not a new tactic for spreading creationist views, says Eugenie Scott, head of the National Center for Science Education. The stickers have existed in one form or another since the 1970s and are popular with school boards across the country because they are cheap.

Although the Cobb County decision will not put an end to disclaimers entirely, there is a broader significance to the ruling, says Scott. “This is the first time that there has been a chance for a judge to rule on the softer forms of creationism.” She refers specifically to intelligent design, an intellectual movement that challenges evolution by maintaining that the complexity of the origin and diversity of life must have been created by an intelligent mind.

Scott sees intelligent design as an attempt to “repack creationism in a way that will avoid legal problems”. This will soon be tested in Dover, Pennsylvania — the first school district in the United States to add intelligent design to the science curriculum. Eleven parents have sued to overturn the policy and, according to Scott, the federal trial seems likely to begin this autumn.