Is Winning a Mock Trial Supposed to be an Antievolutionist Consolation Prize?

Art on ATBC reports on a mock trial to be held at Northern Kentucky University on October 22nd, or this coming Wednesday.

Thursday – October 16, 2008
For immediate release…

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. – On Oct. 22, Northern Kentucky University will host a unique interactive mock trial that will turn local citizens into jurors on the hotly-contested issue of whether public school science teachers should be allowed to teach creation science, which attempts to use scientific means to prove the Genesis account of creation.

The trial, which will take place at 7 p.m. at NKU’s University Center Otto M. Budig Theater, is free and open to the public. It is sponsored by the Northern Kentucky Forum, the NKU Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement and Nonprofit Development and the NKU Chase College of Law Center for Excellence in Advocacy.

The first 200 people in attendance will have an opportunity to serve as jurors, using small remote control clickers to register their opinions both before and after the trial. At the conclusion of the proceeding, they will decide the case.

“It is part of the mission of the Scripps Howard Center to conduct public forums,” said Mark Neikirk, the Centers executive director. “I’ve heard President Votruba state many times that a college campus should be a safe place for difficult conversations.” Neikirk said that while the evolution/creation science debate is a difficult conversation, he felt it could be more productive if held as a mock trial.

The Trial: Scott v. Chandler County School Board

The trial centers around the termination of fictitious biology teacher Susan Scott (a traditionally trained evolution adherent), who according to her complaint, encouraged students to “explore creation theories.” Scott, who will be played by Simon Kenton High School teacher Heather Mastin, is suing the fictitious Chandler County School Board for wrongful termination and seeks reinstatement, compensatory damages and a judicial declaration that the school board violated her First Amendment rights.

Scott will be represented by local attorney Phil Taliaferro, who will argue that teaching creation theory is not only permitted in Kentucky, but legally protected. The defendant, Chandler County School Board, will be represented by local attorney Margo Grubbs, who will argue that Scott’s termination was justified under existing law.

Scott’s chief witness will be the real-life Dr. Ben Scripture, who received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Notre Dame in1998. Dr Scripture has earned degrees from the University of California at Berkeley (a A.B. in zoology) and Grace Theological Seminary (M.Div.). Dr. Scripture has published articles in the Journal of Biological Chemistry and the Journal of Molecular Biology. He hosts weekly radio programs, “Scripture on Creation” and “That’s What Scripture Says” on radio stations in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Indianapolis, and on the Good News Network stations covering the southeastern region of the U.S.

The school board will be represented in court by fictional superintendent Bryan Boone, who will be played by retired Boone County Superintendent Bryan Blavatt. Its key witness will be real-life evolution advocate Ed Kagin, a Union, Ky., attorney. Kagin is a founder of the Free Inquiry Group and co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America. He is the originator of Camp Quest, the nation’s first residential secular summer camp. He has run unsuccessfully as “the candidate without a prayer” for the Kentucky Supreme Court and Senate. Kagin is the national legal director for American Atheists and was awarded “Atheist of the Year” by that group in 2005 and 2008.

As is so often the case, the legalities of the issue aren’t black and white. Kentucky has fairly strict guidelines that suggest evolution-only instruction, but also has a pro-Genesis statute. And, of course, the question isn’t confined to the Commonwealth. It is playing out again in the national political debate – as it so often does – and is heating up in a number of states.

The trial judge will be played by retired Kenton County Circuit Court Judge Doug Stephens.

Northern Kentucky Forum

The mock trial is the first of what Northern Kentucky Forum, a partnership between the Scripps Howard Center, Legacy and Vision 2015, hopes will become monthly events that attract diverse audiences, advocate for public dialogue but not any one position, provide for audience input and allow all sides of a given issue to be represented. “We’ll always be looking for a way to bend the format,” Neikirk said, “to look at issues in a different way.”

The next forum will be held Nov. 12 and will focus on the results of the presidential election and what impact it will have upon the region. Other upcoming forum topics tentatively planned include Northern Kentuckys role in Frankfort; public education; energy policy; and diversity in the region.

There are several disturbing elements in the announcement of the mock trial.

The fictional offense is left entirely vague. Did “Susan Scott” do anything more than tell students to investigate creationism as an offhand comment? If not, then there is very little handle for the defense to grasp here. It looks like the “offense” was carefully designed as the best possible basis for applying Kentucky law. What this does is minimize the degree to which case law stipulates that the school district provides the curriculum which teachers are charged with teaching. If there is little time taken in undermining science, the argument will run that “Susan Scott” did teach the curriculum — and just a tiny bit more. Because the plaintiff is a teacher making a remark that might be off-the-cuff, there is little in the way of Lemon test “purpose” prong analysis that would apply. “Effect” and “entanglement” prongs similarly have little scope due to the vagueness of the statement of the offense.

The expert witnesses are disparate in backgrounds. The antievolution expert holds scientific credentials. The defense expert does not.

All in all, this looks from the announcement to be carefully crafted to hand the plaintiff in the mock trial an easy win. Maybe not everything relevant was listed in the announcement, but we have to work with what we’ve got, and that does not inspire confidence that this event is anything other than agitprop for the antievolution movement.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.