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Bush triggers religious row

United States

President reignites debate over theory of evolution. Stephen Phillips reports

President George Bush added new fuel to the debate over teaching evolution in schools last week. He said a theory backed by fundamentalist Christians but derided by scientists be given equal teaching time with Darwin's theory.

Asked where he stood on intelligent design, a quasi-religious theory on the origins of life advanced by evolution's opponents, he told a White House press conference: "I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas. The answer is yes."

Amid intense lobbying of US schools by anti-evolution activists, and weeks before Kansas officials are tipped to allow its schools to teach criticism of evolution, President Bush's remarks were seized on by evolution's detractors, but condemned by teachers' representatives and scientists.

"President Bush is to be commended for supporting (students') right to hear different scientific views about evolution," said John West of the Discovery Institute, a pressure group which has led efforts to undermine evolution and promote intelligent design in schools, now proceeding in several states.

But Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, said intelligent design was pseudo-science and that President Bush's comments offered the "religious Right a foothold in science classes".

Intelligent design holds that life can be explained only as the product of deliberate creation. But scientists say it is a re-packaged version of creationism, the belief that life sprang from the hand of God, and has no scientific standing.

"Evolution opponents have become much more sophisticated at concealing their religious motivations," said biology professor Kenneth Miller of Brown university in Providence.

Evolution is seen as the cornerstone of modern biology but opponents say it promotes atheism.

The president's position was no surprise to political observers. As Texas governor, he called for creationism to be taught alongside evolution, and in 2000 said "the jury is still out" on evolution.

Biology teachers wanting to teach evolution face "scary times", said Mr Wheeler. A poll of teachers in March found that hostility towards it was having a chilling effect on teaching.

Scientists boycotted Kansas's "hearings" on evolution in May.

Professor Miller said his peers were in a quandary about speaking up for it. "When they respond to allegations from the intelligent design movement, it creates the false impression of controversy (over evolution) where none exists," he said.

Other causes cherished by conservative Christians include public prayer and Bible study. Last week, a watchdog group said a Bible-study course offered in 300 education authorities "endorses the Bible as the word of God" and implied that historians consider it - and not the US constitution - to be America's founding charter.

The curriculum is administered by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, an evangelical group that successfully campaigned recently for optional Bible-study classes in Odessa, Texas.

The group described the authors of the report - the Texas Freedom Network and an inter-denominational panel of clergy - as "anti-religious extremists".

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