OKLAHOMA CITY—Textbooks sold to public schools in Oklahoma must now carry a disclaimer regarding theories of how life started on Earth.

The disclaimer states that evolution is “the unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced a world of living things. No one was present when life first appeared on Earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered theory, not fact.”

Any biology book sold to the state's 540 school districts must carry the disclaimer.

The Oklahoma State Textbook Committee decided on the disclaimers Nov. 5. It indicates another chapter in the ongoing debate nationwide over the teaching of creation and evolution in public schools.

Critics immediately pounced on the committee's move.

“It's very clear that the Constitution mandates the separation of church and state,” said Joseph Conn, spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “The Constitution says that you can't teach religion in public school.”

Conn told the Register that his group is first trying to persuade the committee to rescind its decision, but he added that a lawsuit is a possibility. “We're still looking into a variety of legal options,” he said.

Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating said he believes that the group has no case because the committee did not mandate or prohibit anything from being taught.

“It said, ‘Have an open and critical mind,’” the governor told the Register. “As a Catholic, I think that's a fair statement.”

He added, “Louisiana requires that creationism be taught. Kansas debated whether or not evolution should be taught. We're not saying what can and can't be taught. Nothing is promoted. Nothing is advanced.”

Keating said the disclaimer was necessary because some textbooks tried to assert a specific kind of evolution that said humans were equivalent with other animals. “This is simply offensive to many people,” he observed.

The disclaimer, Keating said, would remind people that there are many different theories of how life started, and that some people, including Pope John Paul II, maintain that evolution and creation need not contradict each other.

The governor further noted that the committee was right to state “that evolution was a theory, not a scientific law like gravity.”

Conn again disagreed.

“If evolution were just a theory that might be the case, but it's a flat mis-statement that it's controversial in the scientific community,” Conn claimed.

That statement, however, is not without its own controversy. Richard Behe, a professor of biology at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., countered that most scientists accept evolution based on philosophy rather than actual evidence.

“Many scientists believe that nature and matter is all there is — that nothing else could explain our world,” said Behe. Starting with such a presupposition, he said, makes no room for any evidence of intellectual design behind the universe.

Under the scientific approach, on the other hand, “the evidence for evolution becomes less convincing,” Behe maintained. That's why he considers the disclaimer “completely reasonable.” “Many biology textbooks say they just teach science,” noted Behe. But they don't live up to that standard, he insisted. He noted that the National Biology Teachers Association adopted a position last year that evolution was an “unsupervised, impersonal and natural process.”

By defining evolution that way, Behe said, “They are clearly trying to exclude God from the process. What experiment did they do to prove that evolution is unpersonal?”

The Lehigh professor added that the disclaimer should not cause great concern for those who believe in evolution.

“They must think there's very good evidence,” he said. “Well, then students will be convinced by the evidence. Then there should be no difficulty with such an insert.”