September 2016 Newsletter

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

  1. Is Creationism Headed Back to the US Supreme Court?;
  2. Astrobiology News for September 2016:  A Potentially Habitable Exoplanet in Our Cosmic Backyard;
  3. Free Resources for Evolution Weekend;
  4. The American Geophysical Union and Evolution; and
  5. Creationism in Texas - Again.

1.  Is Creationism Headed Back to the US Supreme Court?

Back in 2013, Citizens for Objective Public Education (COPE) sued the Kansas State Board of Education. As explained by our good friends at the National Center for Science Education, “The complaint contended that the Next Generation Science Standards, NGSS, and the Framework for K-12 Science Education (on which the NGSS are based) ‘will have the effect of causing Kansas public schools to establish and endorse a non-theistic religious worldview ... in violation of the Establishment, Free Exercise, and Speech Clauses of the First Amendment, and the Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment.’” The U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas dismissed the suit in 2014 and when COPE appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, that court also dismissed the case in 2016. In August Cope appealed to the Supreme Court asking, “Do theistic parents and school children have Article III standing to challenge their state’s establishment of a13 year K-12 program of education designed to supplant the children’s theistic religious beliefs with non-theistic religious beliefs that are materialistic/atheistic in violation of their rights under the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the14th Amendment?”

We’ll have to see how this turns out but promoting good science certainly doesn’t constitute promoting atheism. You can read more about the case, including all of the court filings on the NCSE website. If nothing else, this case demonstrates how important and timely our work showing that religion and evolution can comfortably coexist remains.


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2.  Astrobiology News for September 2016:  A Potentially Habitable Exoplanet in Our Cosmic Backyard

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses the newly discovered Proxima Centauri b and asks for help exploring the Milky Way.

A few weeks ago, the discovery of an exoplanet slightly more massive than the Earth orbiting the Sun’s nearest stellar neighbor(1) brought the discussion of searching for life beyond our Solar System very close to home (close on a cosmic scale, anyway)! A “mere” 4.25 light-years distant, Proxima Centauri b orbits its M-dwarf star with a period of just over 11 days. Its small orbit - about 20 times smaller than the Earth’s orbit about the Sun - places this world at the right distance from its cool, dim, red star to have a temperature in the right range for liquid water.

M-dwarf stars offer particularly intriguing, as well as challenging, environments, for hosting habitable exoplanets. On one hand, these stars are very abundant, comprising about 70% of all the stars in our Galaxy. They also have lifetimes of trillions of years, good news for the development and possible longevity of complex life, or even civilizations, that might evolve. On the other hand, M-dwarf stars suffer frequent and intense outbursts of damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Additionally, exoplanets having temperatures conducive to life as we know it have to orbit so close to these cool stars that they would be tidally locked, presenting the same face to their stars all the time (as the Moon does to the Earth).

These challenges aren’t necessarily showstoppers for life. For example, some forms of life on Earth absorb harsh UV and transform it to less energetic light, leading to the suggestion that biofluorescence might be an evolutionary adaptation for life in the presence of stars subject to such temperamental outbursts.(2) In any event, Proxima Centauri b surely warrants considerable future study. In fact, it’s already the suggested target of a proposed robotic mission. The idea is to accelerate a tiny nanocraft to 20% of the speed of light using powerful lasers, enabling a close-up look at this distant world after a journey of 20-25 years, followed by another 4 years for Earth to receive whatever information the tiny probe transmits back.(3) The project itself has a 10-year development timeline; nevertheless, the fact that such an interstellar voyage might be accomplished within a century of the launch of Earth’s first artificial satellite is remarkable!

I encourage everyone to read a blog written by my Adler colleague, Lucianne Walcowicz: Do Dolphins Dream of Space Travel?.(4) Lucianne’s research focuses on the potential habitability of exoplanets orbiting M-dwarf stars. By the way, if you happen to live in Chicagoland and you’re a fan of science fiction, you’d probably enjoy the Adler Planetarium’s REEL Science Film Series, where we watch popular science fiction movies and then discuss some of the real science relating to the movie themes afterwards. In a continuing celebration of the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, October’s movie will be Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,(5) which speculates that whales might be more interesting than humans to a hypothetical extraterrestrial civilization.

Until next month,


Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D. (

P.S. A personal invitation: In April 2015, I wrote about the relevance of so-called “yellowballs,” discovered by citizen scientists working on the Milky Way Project (MWP), to understanding the origin of our Solar System.(6) The MWP(7) was just re-launched with incredible new images and better measuring tools to catalog signposts of star formation across our Galaxy. My colleague, Charles Kerton, and I are leading the yellowball study and need your help classifying the new images – please consider going to the website and joining us in this effort!


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3.  Free Resources for Evolution Weekend

I know that many of you want to participate in Evolution Weekend 2017 (10-12 February 2017) with your congregation but you’re not sure what to do. To help resolve this dilemma, I’m taking this opportunity to share some videos given to me by Jon Cleland Host from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Hobart, Indiana. He made it clear that all of you have his permission to make any use of the videos, or the ideas contained in them, if you believe they will help you create an exciting Evolution Weekend event.

         *Grandmother Fish:  As Jon said, the video is “a reading of the book Grandmother Fish at a church for the kids' story time. You can hear the kids having a great time with the story! It's a fun part of any Evolution Weekend that all churches could easily add.”

         *Links of Love:  This is a video of a sermon delivered by Jon.

         *DNA, Ancestors, Evolution:  This is another video of a sermon delivered by Jon.

         *Chocolate Communion:  This is a video of a five minute portion of an Evolution Weekend service.

_____ Wow! These resources are great. Please sign us up to participate in Evolution Weekend 2017 (10-12 February 2017). (If you’re already listed on our 2017 web page, there’s no need to sign up again!)

    Name of Congregation:
    City, State, Country:
    Your Name:



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4.  The American Geophysical Union and Evolution

Because the battle just won’t end and because constant vigilance is required, the American Geophysical Union, a non-profit organization with over 62,000 geologists as members, has reaffirmed its position statement on evolution. The statement, entitled “The Scientific Theories of Biological Evolution and History of the Earth Should be Central Elements of Science Education” was originally drafted in 1981 and it has been reaffirmed on seven separate occasions, most recently just this month.

While I hope you take a look at the statement, let me present the short opening paragraph as well as the first sentences of each of the next two paragraphs to give you a flavor of what it says.

“Scientific theories of Earth history and biological evolution are fundamental to understanding the natural world, are supported by extensive evidence, and are non-controversial within the scientific community. These principles of scientific understanding must be central elements of science education…. AGU affirms the central importance of including scientific theories of Earth history and biological evolution in science education. Within the scientific community, the theory of biological evolution is not controversial, nor have “alternative explanations” been found…. Evolution through natural selection is one of the great unifying theories in biology.”

I trust you’ll note the similarities to the wording in our Clergy Letters!





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5.  Creationism in Texas - Again

Creationists in Texas are again attempting to ensure that Texas public school students experience their science curriculum with a heavy dose of politics. The Huffington Post recently published a piece of mine that explains the troubling situation. I’ll not repeat the full argument here since you can read the essay if you want, but what’s important is that creationists on a review panel and on the full State Board of Education continue to promote one very narrow view of religion – while calling it science. Actions of this sort are unfair to Texas students, do great damage to science education and are equally problematic for religion. It’s well worth noting that The Clergy Letter Project’s good friend, the Texas Freedom Network, has been on top of this situation and is working tirelessly to reduce instances of this sort.


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As always, I want to sincerely thank all of you for your continued efforts to help people understand the positive relationship possible between religion and science. And, as I do every month, I urge you to take two simple actions. First, share this Newsletter with a colleague or two and ask them to add their voices to those promoting a deep and meaningful understanding between religion and science. They can add their signatures to a Clergy Letter simply by dropping me a note at Second, if you’re in a position to do so, please sign up now to participate in Evolution Weekend 2017. Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project