In recent years, the debate over the role of religion in United States public schools has become especially prominent. Issues such as holding baccalaureate services in public high schools, including the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and student prayerPrayer is the vocal or silent address to the Divine. It may consist of fixed words, spontaneous words, or rest in silence with no words at all. Some forms of prayer are accompanied with specific postures or gestures, while others are not. have been the source of much disagreement in the public arena as of late. Debates over the teaching of evolution are no exception. Currently, a controversy over evolution exists in Kansas, the focus of which has been the Kansas State Board of Education. In May 2005 the Board of Education held hearings to discuss a “Minority Report” written by eight of the twenty-five members of the Kansas Science Standards Writing Committee. This Minority Report proposes altering state science standards to include strong critiques of biological evolution and has been met with much contention.
These hearings became the center of media attention when groups such as Kansas Citizens for Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science supported a boycott for the proceedings. Pro-evolution scientists from across the country considered the hearings to be a political show trial, the outcome of which had been predetermined. Those in support of the proceedings, however, claim that the boycott is unjustified and in fact points to weaknesses in evolutionary theory. The group of individuals who testified at the hearings was comprised largely of those in support of Intelligent Design theory, the notion that the complex nature of the universe and life within it points to the existence of an intelligent designer in creation. During the hearings, they claimed that including critiques of evolutionary theory in the state’s science curriculum standards maintains a critical and fair examination of the development of life on Earth. Still, those boycotting the hearings claim that defenders of Intelligent Design and those supporting critiques of evolution in the state’s science standards are bringing “creationist” views into the classroom under the banner of “fair” scientific inquiry.
The present dispute is the most recent edition of a six-year long struggle within the Kansas educational system. In 1999, a majority of the Kansas State School Board made a controversial decision to remove most references to evolution from state science standards. However, an election the following year brought a new group of individuals to the Board of Education who disagreed with the previous year’s decision, and the revisions to science standards were overturned. The 2004 elections again provided the Board of Education with a majority who support altering evolution’s central role in science classrooms, and the debate once more took center stage. The three-member Science Hearing Committee which presided over the May 2005 hearings presented its findings to the entire Board of Education on June 15. A final decision concerning the proposed changes to the state’s science standards is expected to be released by the Kansas State Board of Education sometime in August.
—Aaron White, Pluralism Project Research Associate