Education, civil rights groups mount efforts to save evolution science

Thursday, August 19, 1999

Less than a week after the Kansas Board of Education decided to dump evolution as a necessary topic for science classes, a state civil rights group has threatened legal action against what it sees as an attempt by state officials to promote the Christian theory of creationism.

Acting on literal beliefs in the Bible’s creation story, six members of the 10-member Board of Education voted last week to adopt standards that de-emphasize evolution in science classes. The new standards permit local school boards to allow the teaching of religious theories of macro-evolution, such as the so-called “creation science,” and “intelligent design” theories, or to stick with teaching evolution. Both “creation science” and “intelligent design” theories rest on the view that life forms did evolve, but by the power of a theistic being.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri this week sent letters to public school districts across Kansas warning officials that legal action would be taken if they began to allow the teaching of macro-evolution theories such as “creation science” and “intelligent design.”

“As you may know, public schools are prohibited from acting in any way which may tend to favor one religion over another, or favor religion over non-religion,” ACLU officials wrote. “In Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court held unconstitutional a state requirement that schools teach creation science alongside traditional evolutionary theory. In reaching its conclusion, the court held that the Establishment Clause forbids ‘the preference of a particular religious doctrine or the prohibition of theory, which is deemed antagonistic to a particular dogma.’ The law in this area is clear. States and school districts may not adopt religious theories as standards in school curricula, nor may they restructure their curricula for the purpose of omitting accepted scientific theories which may conflict with particular religious beliefs.”

The ACLU said in its letter that Kansas school districts would risk “facing legal action by district residents who are opposed to a religiously based science curricula.”

The state school board’s decision drew national attention and was widely seen as a triumph for creationists. The Supreme Court and other federal courts have repeatedly barred the religious theory from being taught in public school classrooms because the First Amendment’s religious-liberty clauses bar government endorsement of religion.

“The Kansas action is a victory for creationists,” The New York Times opined on Aug. 13, two days after the board’s vote. “Blocked by the courts from forcing creation theory into science curriculums, they are now working to drive references to evolution out of the schools and textbooks. Religious and cultural conservatives on the board may have thought they were taking a bold stand against a scientific theory they regard as a threat to ‘creationist beliefs’ in the origins of the universe and all life within it. But the real losers here will be the very schoolchildren the board members thought they were protecting.”

Maxine Singer, a molecular biologist and president of the Carnegie Institution, wrote in a guest column in The Washington Post that the action of the Kansas school board essentially “allows religious beliefs to determine what should be taught,” in public school science classrooms.

Despite polls suggesting that large numbers of Americans take the Bible’s creation story literally, several civil rights and science-education groups have said they will mount vigorous efforts to persuade school officials in Kansas and other states to protect their science curricula from being infused with biblical stories.

Fred Spillhaus, executive director of the American Geophysical Union, issued a statement late last week urging its members to get involved in public school politics.

“Scientists would be well-advised to run for school boards or, at the very least, to actively support well-informed candidates,” Spillhaus wrote. “If scientists want to see good science taught in the schools, they can’t just participate as teachers. They have to get out and get into the policy making aspect of it.”

Tom Willis, president of Creation Science Association and one of the creationists who helped the Kansas school board create its new science standards, has argued that there is a “vast amount of scientific evidence” that supports biblical creation as the true account of the creation of the universe.

But Singer wrote that the debate before the Kansas school board was framed by biblical literalists who claim that creationist ideas are science.

“They misinterpret or deny the vast amount of data demonstrating that Earth is more than 4 billion years old and has been home to living things for at least 3 billion of those years,” Singer wrote. “They present fact findings that do not pass even minimal standards for scientific rigor or reliability; one example is their claim that dinosaurs and humans existed simultaneously.”