The chairwoman of Brainerd’s school board this week questioned the teaching of evolution and suggested that it’s incompatible with Christian beliefs.
“I did have a question about evolution,” Sue Kern said at a Monday board meeting after a presentation about the planned biology curriculum at Brainerd High School.
“You know, Darwin’s theory was done in the mid-1800s and it’s never been proven,” Kern said. “So I’m wondering why we’re still teaching it.”
District staff and faculty members who gave the presentation responded by explaining that the theory of evolution has gotten stronger with scientific discovery — for example, the study of DNA.
Kern then wondered about those whose religious beliefs don’t include evolution.
“And then with regard to your Christian students, then — how do you do that? How do you tell them?” she said. “Because they are taught not to agree with that, so …”
Craig Rezac, a Brainerd science teacher who led the presentation to the school board, answered that teaching evolution is not in conflict with Christian beliefs.
“This is science, and science doesn’t deal with a belief system,” he said. “We deal with facts.
“It doesn’t have to be a dilemma or a concern with someone to choose between evolution or Christianity,” he said. “You can actually embrace both.”
Tim Murtha, the district’s director of teaching and learning, pointed out that teaching evolution is explicitly identified in state educational standards.
Kern didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In a statement, Brainerd Public Schools Superintendent Laine Larson said Kern’s comments “reflect her personal views and do not reflect the views of the Board of Education as a whole or the Brainerd Public School District.”
“The District’s approved science curriculum aligns with the MN State Standards,” Larson’s statement said, adding that “the Board of Education unanimously approved the Science and Biology curriculum at Monday’s meeting.”
Kern was first elected to the school board in 2012. In a candidate questionnaire in 2016, as she ran for a second term, she promised “to maintain family conservative values and culture.” According to her LinkedIn profile, Kern is a registered nurse and works as a realty assistant.
Minnesota courts have upheld the teaching of evolution. In 2001, the state Court of Appeals upheld the removal of a Faribault biology teacher, Rod LeVake, who argued that teaching evolution violated his Christian beliefs. He was reassigned to teach science in a lower grade, where evolution wasn’t part of the curriculum.
Randy Moore, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota, called evolution disputes “a common theme in virtually every school district. It’s been controversial throughout the country, and not just in the South, for 100 years,” he said.
Moore has done regular surveys of Minnesota teachers and consistently found that at least a third of them either downplay evolution or don’t teach it at all, despite state requirements.
“They are afraid of it — either the topic or the consequences,” Moore said. “Either for religious or local political reasons, it’s just not worth it.”
Disputes over evolution teaching are less frequent than they were 20 to 30 years ago, said Ann Reid, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.
“The court rulings have been so clear,” she said. In many cases, she added, evolution becomes an issue “because someone has run for the school board, or gotten involved because they want to keep evolution out of the schools.”
“They really see it as a battle for their kids’ souls,” Reid said.
John Reinan • 612-673-7402