March 2015 Newsletter

In this Clergy Letter Project update, you’ll find the following six items:

  1. Thankfully, A Quiet Month;
  2. Astrobiology News for March 2015: Journey to the Dawn of Our Solar System;
  3. Religion and Science Panel at the College of Central Florida;
  4. Why It’s Important to Teach Evolution;
  5. Grace Wolf-Chase and Oprah: and
  6. The American Federation of Teachers Endorses the Teaching of Evolution.

1. Thankfully, A Quiet Month

I’m delighted to say that this month has been remarkably quiet on the legislative front. Even with most state legislatures currently in session, I haven’t seen any assaults on the teaching of evolution.

Last month, however, did see a bit of an attack both on reason and our constitutional system by Ken Ham and his organization, Answers in Genesis (AiG). Answers in Genesis filed a federal lawsuit against the State of Kentucky after the state opted to cancel a tax incentive for AiG’s latest venture, The Ark Encounter, a theme park centered on the concept of Noah’s Ark. The state reached its decision after the for-profit entity was found to be violating state and federal law by setting religious preferences for the hiring of new employees. Ham and AiG argue that they have a right to discriminate because they are a religious organization while claiming that they also have a right to receive tax benefits as a tourist attraction. My understanding is that they have to choose to either be a religious non-profit or a secular for-profit organization. If the former, they can hire who they wish, but they can’t receive tax benefits provided by the state. If the latter, they can receive tax benefits, but they can’t discriminate in their hiring practices. I suspect that this lawsuit will end poorly for AiG.


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2.  Astrobiology News for March 2015: Journey to the Dawn of Our Solar System

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses some exciting explorations into our Solar System.

This month’s title may be a bit misleading. The Dawn spacecraft will not travel back in time, but on March 6th, it did enter orbit around the dwarf planet, Ceres, which is thought to preserve a record of the early evolution of our Solar System.(1) Ceres is the most massive world in the Asteroid Belt, a region of space located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter that effectively separates the rocky terrestrial worlds of the inner Solar System from the gas giant and icy worlds of the outer Solar System. Dawn is the 1st spacecraft to visit two worlds in the Asteroid Belt; from 2011 to 2012, Dawn orbited Vesta, the 2nd most massive object in this region.

What makes Ceres and Vesta so interesting? They are the largest protoplanets, baby planets whose growth was interrupted by the formation of Jupiter, to remain intact since their formation. Their exploration will enable us to study the nature of the building blocks from which the terrestrial planets (like Earth) formed. Although these two are the largest worlds in the Asteroid Belt, they are quite different from each other, and as such hold important clues to the diversity of processes that were important during the first few million years of our Solar System’s evolution. While Vesta is dry and rocky, Ceres, which is just a little more distant from the Sun, is an icy world with water vapor in its thin atmosphere. Data returned from Dawn will help scientists study the role of size and water in planetary evolution.

This summer, the New Horizons (2) spacecraft will visit another (very well-known!) dwarf planet, Pluto. On March 12th, New Horizons reached a milestone in its journey. It crossed within one astronomical unit from Pluto, meaning it is now closer to Pluto than the Earth is to the Sun. Pluto resides in the Kuiper Belt, a disc-shaped region of icy objects beyond the orbit of Neptune. Expect to hear more about New Horizons’ nearly decade-long journey later this year!

By the way, other stars have leftover regions of rocky and icy planetesimals (planet building blocks), similar to our Asteroid and Kuiper Belts. You can help identify these “debris disks” by joining the Zooniverse’s Disk Detective (3) project. Your classifications will enable scientists to explore fundamental questions about the environments where planets are born.

Until next month,


Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D. (





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3. Religion and Science Panel at the College of Central Florida

As part of a series of campus events addressing the relationship between science and religion, Associate Professor of Chemistry Pete Nicely and Associate Professor of Biology Steve Schenk of the College of Central Florida are putting together a panel discussion entitled “Has Science Made Religion Irrelevant?” This event will examine the compatibility of science and religion, with the aim of challenging the audience to think critically about that relationship, and to re-examine their own beliefs through a dialogue between and with a panel of college faculty. Panelists for the evening will include Associate Professor Schenk (who is also a Clergy Letter Project Scientific consultant), as well as Professor Scott Olsen (Philosophy, Humanities, and Comparative Religion) and Associate Professor Pete Smith (Humanities and Social Science).

The panel will be held from 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm on Tuesday, April 21 in the College of Central Florida’s conference center on the Citrus County Campus. There is no admission charge and the event is open to the public. For additional information about the event, you can contact the organizers at or

The College of Central Florida's Citrus County Campus is located at 3800 S. Lecanto Highway, in Lecanto, FL. It is approximately 45 minutes from Ocala, 75 minutes from Tampa, and 90 minutes from Gainesville and Orlando.


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4.  Why It’s Important to Teach Evolution

Why It’s Important to Teach Evolution essay about the teaching of evolution for Orion Magazine. I hope you find his article as interesting and as informative as I did.


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5. Grace Wolf-Chase and Oprah

I mentioned last month that our very own Grace Wolf-Chase was to be featured on Super Soul Sunday with Oprah Winfrey. Her segment recently appeared and you can watch it here. I’m confident that you’ll be as impressed with her as I am.


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6. The American Federation of Teachers Endorses the Teaching of Evolution

The American Federation of Teachers recently adopted a very strong resolution endorsing the teaching of evolution and opposing any move to bring creationism, intelligent design or evolution denial into the public school science curriculum.


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Let me close by thanking all of you who have supported The Clergy Letter Project and our efforts to promote high quality science education and respect for religion. If you know anyone who share’s these goals, please pass along this newsletter. Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project