The State Board of Education, swayed by arguments that watering down the theory of evolution would "demean both faith and science," adopted a new slate of high school biology books Thursday that were expected to eventually land on the desks of millions of students in more than a dozen states.
Technically, the board's 11-4 vote was preliminary, but it was seen as a forceful rebuke of religious conservatives seeking to have the books rejected.
Both sides said final approval in a vote to be taken this morning was a foregone conclusion. The books -- $30 million worth, by some estimates -- will be available for the 2004-2005 school year.
"Rejecting one or more of the books ... would have sent a dangerous message that the education of millions of Texas children is less important than the personal beliefs of a few," said Samantha Smoot, president of the Texas Freedom Network. The group is a coalition of civic activists and clergy who say they seek to counter the influence of religious extremists.
David Gagenda, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Texas at Austin, read reporters a statement signed by 550 scientists and educators representing a host of industries and arenas central to Texas life -- including high school teachers, space industry chemists and oil company engineers.
"At a time when our nation's welfare increasingly depends on technology, it has never been more important for students to understand the basic ideas of modern science," said the statement, which was sent to the elected members of the State Board of Education last week.
"Evolution is not a belief, a hunch or an untested hypothesis. It has been extensively tested and repeatedly verified."
The vote, like the differences between evangelicals and evolutionists, was marked by tension, passion and drama.
The chairwoman of the board, Geraldine Miller of Dallas, was twice reduced to slamming her fist down as a conservative wing of the panel tried repeatedly to reject most of the books.
After tense arguments, a board member voting with the majority, Joe Bernal of San Antonio, urged Miller to simply stop recognizing people who were holding up their hands to speak. That way, he said, she wouldn't "prolong this agony."
"So much for representative government," murmured board member David Bradley of Beaumont, who was on the losing end of the vote and wanted to continue the debate. His comment was picked up by a microphone on the dais.
"We didn't have the opportunity to express our will," said Don McLeroy, another board member who had urged rejection of most of the books. "Some of the books are just too dogmatic. I wish the books were as careful and cautious as Charles Darwin was. These books do not search for the truth."
Religious conservatives and activists had argued for months that the proposed textbooks presented too clear-cut a case on the theory of evolution.
As an example, they said the books glossed over what is known in biology as the "Cambrian explosion." The phrase refers to a period about 500 million years ago when, fossil records suggest, changes in several species appear to have happened too quickly to be explained by natural selection or genetic mutation. The books, they argued, should have been rejected outright or edited to correct what they perceived as factual errors or shortcomings in passages about evolution.
Among other allies, a Seattle-based group called the Discovery Institute had joined the campaign. The institute backs the theory of "Intelligent Design," which holds that some biological mechanisms are so complex that they cannot have been created through evolution alone -- meaning, the group argues, that some sort of "intelligent" design or plan has to be behind changes in species.
Among the leading proponents of that theory is William Dembski, a scientist and research professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and an evangelical Christian.
Trained as a mathematician, his work focuses largely on biological probabilities -- applying mathematical and statistical analysis to complex cellular mechanisms, such as protein strings.
Critics of the books and proponents of those theories say their campaign has nothing to do with religion.
"There are weaknesses in evolutionary theory," Bradley said. "That's what this is about."
Educators across the nation said they were watching the debate in Texas closely, largely because the state is the second-biggest buyer of textbooks in the nation behind California.
Publishers often edit their proposed texts to earn consideration in Texas, and as many as a dozen other states often buy books based almost entirely on the vetting process in the state.
But many educators and scientists said they feared that if the group managed to weaken the material in books that supported the theory of evolution, it would open the door to teaching creationism or religion in science classes.
Hundreds of religious leaders from temples, churches and ministries across Texas sent a joint letter to board members stating their opposition to "attempts to dilute, distort, or censor the teaching of evolution."
Several educators and scientists attending the hearing Thursday said they believed the campaign had nothing to do with science and everything to do with religion and ideology. They said they believed that religion should be tolerated and appreciated but kept out of biology classes.
"This was all about politics," said Mark Hester, an Austin resident and retired health and physical education teacher.
"The religious right has so much power. It's expected that good sense can prevail, but in this day and time, with politics being what it is, you can never be sure until it's over."