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Schools can’t teach religion as science, even in Texas

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Charles C. Haynes
August 27, 2011

Texas Gov. Rick Perry needs to get home more often.


On Aug. 11, just days before Perry told a boy in New Hampshire that “in Texas we teach both creationism and evolution,” the Texas Education Agency sent a memorandum to the State Board of Education finalizing approval of scientifically accurate teaching material for use in Texas public schools.


Perry’s pronouncement notwithstanding, Texas schools teach evolution without any mention of creationism—despite years of political pressure from religious conservatives to include creationist ideas in the curriculum. Evolution, dismissed by Perry as “a theory that’s out there” with “some gaps,” is presented as sound science in Texas textbooks and supplementary materials.


But even if a majority of the Texas state board voted tomorrow to teach creationism alongside evolution in science classrooms, public schools may not do so without violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment. So-called “balanced treatment”—when you teach one, teach the other—was explicitly struck down as unconstitutional promotion of religion in public schools by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 (Edwards v. Aguillard).


The struggle to keep religion and science separate in the classroom is a never-ending battle in Texas, as it is in other states where anti-evolution sentiment runs deep. In 2009, the state board of education adopted science standards that require examination of “all sides of scientific evidence”—language that anti-evolution forces hoped would open the door to creationist critiques of evolution.


At the same time, the board rejected stronger language requiring schools to teach “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories, a formulation many scientists and civil libertarians feared would be used to push unscientific objections to evolution.


Just what gets in and what doesn’t was tested earlier this year during a hot debate over supplementary high school lessons up for adoption (“supplementary” because the state can’t afford new textbooks). In July, the state board rejected modifications proposed by a board-appointed reviewer that critics charged would water down and distort the teaching of evolution. Led by the Texas Freedom Network, an advocacy group that supports the teaching of evolution, many scientists, educators and religious leaders led a successful campaign to block the changes.


To mollify anti-evolutionists, the board left open the possibility of revisions by charging Education Commissioner Robert Scott with continuing to work with the publisher on final changes that meet the 2009 standards. On Aug. 11, Scott informed the board that the publisher had “sufficiently addressed” all of the objections.


According to the Texas Freedom Network, the final approval of these lessons means that “all of the materials approved from the nine publishers are in line with fact-based science and free of creationist attacks seeking to undermine science.”


Of course, students in Texas and everywhere else should be exposed to a variety of religious ideas about creation. And they should study the political and religious context for the long-running debate over evolution in the United States. Teaching about religion in public schools in the social studies and other courses is constitutional; teaching religion as science is not.


A good education should also include legitimate scientific questions about evolution. Even the most established scientific theories are open to further discovery. But religious objections to evolution with no scientific support may not be taught as “scientific” critiques of evolution.


No doubt many Texans, if not most, agree with Gov. Perry that schools should teach both creationism and evolution in science classes. But decisions about what counts as science should not be a popularity contest. No matter how many people object, public schools must teach what the vast majority of scientists and every leading science association affirms as sound science.


Rather than fret about the “gaps” in evolutionary theory, Perry should focus on the achievement gap that places American students 23rd in scientific literacy among the 34 developed nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.


Teaching the theory of evolution in public schools may not be popular in Texas or other Bible Belt states. But it’s right and necessary to do for the sake of good science education today—the key to economic prosperity tomorrow.


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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