Church, State And Science Instruction

Why Kansas Flunked

If for no other reason, Religious Right activists deserve credit for being clever in their attacks on public school instruction about evolution. Recognizing what is permissible under current law, creationists continue to find new approaches to undermine the separation of church and state.

Originally the tactic of choice was banning the teaching of evolution, followed by attempts at "equal time" for creationism and evolution. The latest approach is removing evolution from state science curriculum altogether, a step recently taken by the Kansas Board of Education.

The board's decision was a mistake that will have a series of troubling consequences. While many educators have focused on the ramifications that will be seen in the classroom, there are also important church-state considerations.

First, the board's decision is legally suspect because the rejection of evolution appears to have been religiously motivated. The Supreme Court in 1968 ruled that banning evolution is unconstitutional because such a policy is not religiously neutral.

It is the responsibility of the Board of Education to develop a curriculum that teaches science in an accurate and thorough manner, not create a curriculum that reflects the board members' personal religious beliefs. If the board's censorship of evolution was religiously motivated--as seems to be the case--courts may find the action legally problematic.

Secondly, and just as importantly, the non-sectarian nature of our public school system must be preserved to protect religious freedom.

Our schools serve a broad and diverse student population, with different religious backgrounds and a variety of specific creation stories. State science curricula should not, indeed cannot, reflect the religious beliefs of everyone. That simply is not the proper role of the state.

Instead, schools can maintain religious neutrality and teach students the best science we know.

Creationist board members in Kansas insisted that it's best to leave evolution decisions to the local school districts. Their argument is wholly unpersuasive.

Government officials cannot legally promote their religious beliefs through the school curriculum regardless of the level. In other words, if the law prevents members of the Kansas Board of Education from using the science curriculum as a vehicle to promote their religion, members of local school boards are bound by the same restrictions.

Kansas has taken a giant step backwards in science education and church-state relations. The board of education's decision to drop evolution was misguided and ill thought out. A course correction clearly is called for.