Fueling the controversy

A Pennsylvania ruling adds new fuel to the case against new science standards for Kansas schools.

Tuesday’s federal court ruling about teaching intelligent design as part of science classes in Pennsylvania has drawn strong reactions across the country. It has special significance, however, to Kansas, which is dealing with some of the same issues argued in the Pennsylvania case.

The ruling came in response to a case challenging the Dover, Pa., school board’s decision to require science teachers in the district to read a statement saying there were scientific problems with the theory of evolution and offering intelligent design as an alternative explanation for the origin of life on Earth. U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III declared the board’s action unconstitutional, saying it was a thinly veiled attempt to inject religious principles into the public schools.

Jones further contended that ID is not based on science, explaining that “ID’s religious nature is evident because it involves a supernatural designer.” Although ID supporters have dismissed Jones’ ruling as the work of an “activist” judge, it’s interesting to note that Jones took his seat on the U.S. District Court in 2002 after being appointed by President George W. Bush. Another notable facet of the ruling is that it is unlikely to be appealed to a higher court because almost all of the Dover school board members who made the decision that was challenged have been voted out of office. The current members support Tuesday’s ruling.

Despite the lack of an appeal, Tuesday’s ruling in a federal court would seem to have some relevance to the new science standards recently approved by the Kansas Board of Education. Board Chairman Steve Abrams said the ruling would have no effect on Kansas because the state’s new science standards don’t mention intelligent design. However, board member Sue Gamble, who opposed the new standard, says the key is that because the new definition doesn’t limit science explicitly to seeking natural explanations, it opens the door for supernatural and religious explanations.

Various testimony and statements made to and by board members on this issue support Gamble’s contention that teaching intelligent design or creationism as an alternative to evolution in Kansas science classes is part of the mission behind the new standards. This issue also came up in the Pennsylvania ruling, in which Jones accused Dover board members of concealing or even outright lying about their intent in requiring the science statement. He said that despite their protests, it was clear the board members intended to use their position to introduce religious teachings into the public schools.

Judge Jones has drawn a clear legal line between science and belief that may be the basis for litigation in Kansas. Or Kansans may keep this issue out of the courts by seeking – as Dover, Pa., voters did – a political resolution to the controversy and simply removing board members who are pushing to inject non-science into science classrooms.

With the added fuel provided by the Pennsylvania ruling it seems that the evolution controversy in Kansas – whether it is dealt with by political or legal means – is far from resolved.