Dec 04, 2000

New science standards under consideration in Pennsylvania open the door to religious indoctrination in public schools and could lead to lawsuits, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has charged.

In a Dec. 4 letter to Pennsylvania Board of Education President James P. Gallagher, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn warned that the proposed standards "raise grave constitutional and public policy concerns." Added Lynn, "I'm writing today to urge you to revise these new standards to reflect sound constitutional law and appropriate science education."

The standards state that teachers may present theories in science class "that do or do not support the theory of evolution" and that schools may "analyze the impact of new scientific facts on the theory of evolution."

Lynn charged that this is code language designed to win a spot for creationism in science classes. In recent years, he noted, some fundamentalist Christians have begun referring to their ideas about creationism as "intelligent design" or "evidence against evolution."

In his letter to Gallagher, Lynn wrote, "The new science standards under consideration by the board clearly open the door to religious intrusion into the public school science curriculum. If local school districts follow these standards -- and alter their curriculum to conform to religious tenets -- lawsuits are certain to result. We strongly urge you not to give bad advice to school administrators and science teachers through poorly worded science standards."

Lynn noted that State Rep. Samuel Rhorer, an advocate of the new standards, told the Philadelphia Inquirer recently, "I'm not a scientist, but I've done enough reading to know that the whole concept of natural selection and evolution is not science. It's not repeatable. It's a theory. You can talk about chemistry, physics -- those things are all a matter of fact. Evolution is a religious tenet. It's a tenet of secular humanism and of Marxism and Communism."

Lynn urged Gallagher not to let creationists drag Pennsylvania into a costly and drawn-out battle over religion in public schools. "Instead," he wrote, "Pennsylvania needs science and technology standards that are free from sectarian dogma, that instruct its children in the fundamental principles of modern biology and that spur all of the state's public school children to aspire to excellence."

Pennsylvania is considering the controversial change despite praise for the state's existing science curriculum. Earlier this year, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation surveyed all 50 states and assigned them letter grades on the basis of how they teach evolution. Pennsylvania was one of only 10 states to receive an A.

"This is an achievement of which the board can be justifiably proud," noted AU's Lynn. "It would highly ironic if the board were to now turn its back on that progress and denigrate the teaching of evolution in any way."

Although once considered a settled question, the debate over evolution and creationism has erupted as a major issue in recent years. During the last decade, 20 states have faced legal, legislative or policy conflicts over the role of religion in public school science classes.

Americans United is a church-state watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states, including Pennsylvania.