In public forums and other gatherings, the candidates for the Stevenson High School District 125 board have been asked repeatedly if they believe creationism should be taught alongside evolution in science classrooms.
All seven candidates have firmly said the religious belief has no place in science classes. But one, Charles Cardella, has regularly used a three-word phrase that has been at the heart of the creationism-vs.-evolution debate for years.
Although denying creationism has a role in science classes, Cardella has said teachers should instruct students about the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution. He used the phrase in February when talking to the Daily Herald about the issue, and again Tuesday night during a public candidate forum at Stevenson High.
"I believe students understanding both Darwin's theory and also the strengths and weaknesses of that theory is important, based on what we've learned here just in the last 100 years," Cardella said at the gathering.
When asked about the phrase Wednesday morning, Cardella said he believes "any type of scientific theory" has strengths and weaknesses. Science has changed since Darwin's time, he said.
"Why shouldn't students be informed -- taught -- about what we've learned (since then)?" he said. "Not everything in the theory is right. Not everything in the theory is bulletproof."
But some say the phrase -- which dates back to the 1990s -- is used by creationists to undermine the teaching of the theory that man evolved over the millennia.
"It means that they want to teach creationism," said Josh Rosenau, programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit group that defends the teaching of evolution in public schools.
Four seats on the District 125 board, which primarily serves the Lincolnshire and Buffalo Grove areas, will be decided April 5.
Cardella is running on a slate with two other candidates -- Kim Brady and Kathy Powell -- for seats on the board. The other four candidates -- incumbents Bruce Lubin, Terry Moons and Merv Roberts and newcomer David Weisberg -- are running as a separate group.
Cardella was the only candidate espousing the "strengths and weaknesses" phrase during the Feb. 25 Daily Herald interview and at Tuesday's forum. That wording used to appear on his campaign group's website in an explanation about their stance on the issue, but has since been removed.
It was removed, Cardella said, because he and his slate mates were being asked about it so often at candidate coffees and other events.
Cardella said the phrase originated "from inside my campaign." He said he and the other candidates thought it was a simple way to explain that scientific theories have strong and weak points.
He said he didn't know the phrase was controversial when he started using it.
But the phrase has raised eyebrows.
It was at the heart of a long fight over science curriculum in Texas that ended in 2009 when the state education board there eliminated a provision requiring teachers and students to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of evolution. It's surfaced in other states, too, Rosenau said.
Although the phrase has been used in some legislation to refer to scientific theories in general, it's generally only practically applied to evolution, Rosenau said.
"What does it mean to say that gravity has weaknesses?" he said. "What does it mean to say that cell theory has weaknesses?"
Cardella denied his use of the phrase serves as a backdoor approach to teaching creationism in class. On Wednesday, he pledged to stop using the phrase publicly.
"That'll drop from the coffees, I guarantee you," he said.