Kangaroo Court In Kansas: School Board Hearings On Evolution Are Stacked

Kansas public school officials are again drawing national attention for their dogged determination to teach students that Darwin's theory of evolution is controversial.

Spurred by Religious Right activists, attempts to undermine the teaching of evolution are not unique to Kansas. The battle over the scientific theory's place in the public schools is not a new one either. The controversy has plagued the nation for well over 80 years now. The historic and often-vitriolic campaign against evolution was born from fundamentalists' fear that mounting scientific evidence showing that current species evolved from preexisting species would undermine belief in a literal reading of the Bible.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Bible's creation story couldn't be taught alongside evolution in public school science courses, Religious Right groups have, as The New York Times recently put it, "become more wily with each passing year."

The Kansas State Board of Education was successful in 1999 in changing statewide testing standards de-emphasizing evolution. But a backlash occurred - then-Gov. Bill Graves called the board's action "embarrassing," - and the social conservatives on the board were voted out of office during the subsequent election.

But the 2004 statewide elections swept Religious Right allies back into the board's majority. And yesterday, a subcommittee of the board got started by presiding over the first of several days of hearings to create new standards aimed at undermining evolution. Scientists and other teachers opposed to changing the standards refused to attend the first day of hearings because the deck seemed stacked against accepted science.

Instead, the Kansas board heard only from panelists who claimed evolution is controversial within the scientific community and that something called "intelligent design," a recent concoction of creationists, should be noted in the public school science courses, if not taught. As The Times reported today, if the board adopts the standards "as expected," it will join Ohio, which "took a similar step in 2002."

Proponents of evolution are not remaining silent. They have dubbed the board's hearings a "kangaroo court" and conducted press conferences highlighting the overwhelming support evolution has among the nation's scientists and educators.

"It's clear from the beginning that this is not a real science discussion," Jack Krebs, with the Kansas Citizens for Science, told The Washington Post. "This is a showcase for intelligent design."

Intelligent design (ID) is one of those wily maneuvers the Times' editorial referenced. The Discovery Institute in Seattle peddles ID. The Institute tries, but is not always successful, to dilute the religious underpinnings of ID and instead argues that human beings are so complex that they must have been the product of a purposeful designer. The institute works also to avoid describing the designer.

Late last year, a public school board in Pennsylvania voted to require that their science students be taught that evolution is in controversy and alerted to an alternative theory such as ID. Americans United, representing public school parents, has lodged a federal lawsuit against that school district arguing that ID is watered-down creationism and therefore violates the separation of church and state.

In fact, federal court precedent, well more than a decade old, holds that public school science classes are not the proper forums for discussions of religious concepts. Several Supreme Court decisions make it clear that public schools may teach objectively about religion, but only in classes such as comparative religion or literature.

Kansas public school officials and others like them across the country that seek to undermine evolution in the public schools are a gathering threat to the nation's youth. Whether it's plopping a disclaimer about evolution in science texts or providing a platform to the Discovery Institute, those officials are not promoting academic freedom, they are perpetrating academic fraud.