Evolution lawsuit in Palm Beach County

“Evolution is a very important topic and its greatest scientific breakthrough ever so I believe it should be taught,” a Florida fifth grader told a West Palm Beach television station reporter. But according to the boy and his father, civil rights attorney Barry Silver, teachers at his school and across the district are purposely dodging any direct mention of evolution. The Silvers claim rampant political correctness and “fear of criticism from religious fundamentalists” not only leads to the avoidance of evolution but also to the teaching of religion in an “overly positive manner.” Barry Silver, with full support from his son, 11-year-old Brandon, put their complaints in a lawsuit and presented it to the Palm Beach County School Board during its December 2015 meeting.

The lawsuit primarily tackles two main issues that Silver sees as big problems. The first is that students at Waters Edge Elementary were shown a video from the Brainpop website about the September 11th World Trade Center terrorist attacks. In the animated educational show, the main character says: “In fact, the Koran, the holy book of Islam, calls for Muslims to be peaceful, not to kill.” Silver’s lawsuit calls that a “false statement” and cites Koran passages that “encourage Muslims to kill and instruct them not to be peaceful towards non-believers.” Silver uses this as an example of how the school district’s teachers don’t tell the truth about religion in general and they instead provide “apologetics, indoctrination and/or religious propaganda.” The bulk of his suit claims there is a pattern of political correctness in the schools that aims to dodge any conflict over religion with parents or the voting public. When discussing issues of religion or anything that touches on religion, Silver says that teachers will never say anything negative about it or broach subjects that might be seen as conflicting with it. This leads to Silver’s second issues: evolution

fusionSilver’s lawsuit says that teachers in the school district are instructed or “led to believe” by the district to not discuss evolution in the elementary schools. The lawsuit states that the school board “by its actions, its inactions, and its methods of discipline, gives the impression to teachers, that their jobs are safer if they avoid discussion of evolution and natural selection, and refrain from saying anything negative about any religion in particular, or religion in general.” Silver restates this in various forms a few times throughout the document but doesn’t lay out any firm evidence for this. He doesn’t offer any documents, emails, discussions or some type of smoking gun other than supplying as evidence excerpts from his son’s science textbook that is devoid of any direct mention of evolution. If he does have documentation, then it would certainly lend weight to his case. Perhaps he does have it but isn’t required to reveal it at this stage. However, if he doesn’t, it’s unlikely his suit will be taken seriously.

There is a good chance that Waters Edge Elementary school teachers aren’t explicitly mentioning Charles Darwin or evolution in science classes but not because of a religious conspiracy. The state science standards, which dictate what topics are to be taught at each grade level, only require the teaching of basic concepts related to evolution in the elementary schools. For instance, third graders need to understand how animals and plants are classified into major groups. The next time students encounter topics related to evolution is in fifth grade. They must “Describe how, when the environment changes, differences between individuals allow some plants and animals to survive and reproduce while others die or move to new locations.” And they need to “Compare and contrast adaptations displayed by animals and plants that enable them to survive in different environments such as life cycles variations, animal behaviors and physical characteristics.” At no time do the standards require the use of the actual term evolution in elementary schools. That doesn’t come until the seventh grade, according to the state standards. School district officials have publicly said this, but Silver appears to ignore that fact.

Silver, who once served in the Florida House of Representatives, has tried suing the school district before. In 2013 he and his sons filed a lawsuit making many of the same accusations as the current lawsuit. That lawsuit was eventually dismissed by the courts.

Stories about Silver’s current lawsuit have slowly but surely trickled out of the local news market into widely-read Internet sites with sensational headlines like: “Darwin vs Florida? Father & son sue school board for not teaching evolution” and “Florida Student Suing to Fight Schools’ Biblical Attack on Evolution.” However, many of the stories lack detail and back story, which, coupled with many people’s cursory reading of headlines and sensational quotes, lead to explosive social media reactions.

If Silver can substantiate his assertions of pro-religion, anti-evolution conspiracies, his case could have legs. But without clear documentation of such, Silver is simply wasting time and effort. If he wants evolution instruction expanded at the elementary school level, he needs to turn his attention to the State Board of Education and the Department of Education, especially now that the state science standards are undergoing a revision, which is expected to be released for public input in 2016.