St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Bill Foster believes, contrary to the overwhelming majority of scientists, that dinosaurs and humans co-existed. He believes the world was created in six literal days, and he once complained to school officials when his son was taught about Darwin's theory of evolution in fifth grade.
Is that relevant to the campaign for mayor of Florida's fourth-largest city?
"This city is trying to increase its employment base with respect to scientific organizations and trying to recruit scientific concerns to come here,'' said St. Petersburg architect Michael Dailey, who supports Kathleen Ford, Foster's opponent. "If our mayor has a belief system that basically rejects science, how can people take him seriously?"
Foster said he would eagerly court and recruit any science-based employers, regardless of his own personal religious and scientific beliefs. Those beliefs, he insisted, have nothing to do with how he would govern the city.
"I'm very accepting of the many faiths and diversity of the city,'' Foster said, acknowledging that he constantly faces questions about his religious beliefs. "How does my knowledge of scientific theory impact my ability to rationally govern the city of St. Petersburg? It's completely irrelevant."
Ford disagreed: "What's relevant is where the city of St. Petersburg is going in the future. That future is in science and technology. Creationism has no place in science and technology."
In an interview at his law office, Foster talked about some of his beliefs and refused to talk about others.
"Dinosaurs are mentioned in Job, so I don't have any problem believing that dinosaurs roamed the earth,'' he said, referring to the book of Job, which mentions the "behemoth." He said he believes dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time, though most scientists say there is a gap of at least 60 million years between dinosaurs and mankind.
"If you look at all the data that are out there ... they all support the theory of evolution,'' said Peter Harries, an associate professor of paleontology at the University of South Florida. "The only way the theory of evolution is not likely to be true is if you don't believe in the scientific method."
Rather than Darwin's theory of evolution, Foster accepts the Bible's Genesis account in which God created the world and all living things in six days.
Foster, a member of Starkey Road Baptist Church in Seminole, dismissed the suggestion that each of those "days" could represent a period of thousands of years.
"In the Genesis account, it's timed by the sun and the moon,'' he responded.
Normally, candidates in the Tampa Bay area are not asked about dinosaurs or whether they believe the world is billions of years old or thousands, as some creationists maintain. (Ford said billions, Foster declined to answer.)
But in this election Foster has been dogged by questions about his religious beliefs after he sent a controversial letter to the Pinellas School Board, urging members to allow discussion about alternatives to the theory of evolution, such as the Genesis account. His letter suggested that Darwin contributed to the rise of Hitler and the Columbine massacre.
Foster insists he was merely promoting free speech for students.
"That he thrust himself into the public light with that letter when he had announced his intention to run for mayor speaks volumes,'' said Ford, an attorney and Episcopalian who grew up Catholic.
Foster insists his personal religious beliefs, which are shared by millions of Americans, never will and never have overlapped with his governing.
He noted that as a City Council member he voted to approve adult businesses that complied with city regulations. And he voted to sue Bayfront Medical Center because its participation in a regional health care alliance could have required the hospital to follow Catholic doctrine on issues such as abortion.
"The Bible is what I use to dictate my personal belief system and values, but this book also ... commands me to submit to the authority at hand, which is the Constitution,'' Foster said.
Mayor Rick Baker, a Foster supporter, said that he never saw any evidence that Foster's decisionmaking as a City Council member was guided by his religious beliefs.
"He has deeply held beliefs and faith - I respect that - but he understands he would be the mayor of the entire city, and he has the ability to respect everybody no matter what their beliefs," Baker said.
Adam Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.