Archived Opinion

Religion and public schools a volatile mix

When a high school biology teacher in Macon County asked students to compare evolution and creation from a scientific perspective, he was treading too close to the Supreme Court’s long-held directive that mandates the separation of church and state. It’s an assignment the teacher, the school system and anyone who follows this issue needs to take a close look at.

The assignment asked students in a 10th-grade honors biology class to write a paper on the scientific merits of evolution and creation, and then to state which one they supported. There are several problems with this assignment, not the least of which is that one family felt it was an inappropriate validation of a particular religious belief.

In a public school, discussion of this subject should take place in a different class, one where opinion instead of science takes precedent. Evolution versus creation debates are sure to bring out deeply held beliefs that, especially for adolescents, can’t be properly addressed in a science class. Discussion of one’s religious beliefs is certainly not against school policies, as long as instructors take extreme care to make sure they are not proselytizing. Looking for scientific evidence of creation, however, probably is against state and local directives.

By asking students to provide scientific evidence for creation, the assignment — and thereby the school — is essentially asking for proof of one’s religious beliefs. Creation beliefs have their roots in religion, not science. Evolution, on the other hand, is not tied to any religion but is purely scientific theory.

That’s a very fundamental difference, and one school officials must understand. Asking Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, agnostics or anyone to back up their religious beliefs through science is way off base in a public school. And this particular assignment also asked students to choose which of the two options they supported. Many would argue, and we would agree, that this assignment was indeed unconstitutional.

There are many who don’t believe that the Constitution mandates a separation of church and state. Those in this camp often remind others that those words are not even mentioned in the Constitution, and that until a few Supreme Court rulings in the past half century, Christian doctrines were routinely taught in public schools.

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However, it is also true that we have become a much more diverse society. Even within the Christian faith, there are many divisions and many different beliefs. As this reality has spread over the fabric of society, courts have made it clear that public schools and other government entities must refrain from taking any steps to impose their particular brand of religion on anyone else. The minority’s religious freedom must be protected. Doing otherwise is against the law.

Perhaps more important, and something many Christians in this country in particular don’t seem to understand, is that believing in the scientific merit of evolution does not rule out the existence of God. Our public schools should teach science, but by doing so they are leaving others — parents, churches, mentors — to discuss religion.

An article in a recent Wall Street Journal addressed that very issue: “What science is is settled methodologically. It’s not that science rules out the supernatural as a precondition. But scientists want to apprehend the world, and there is no procedure for studying the supernatural. God is not a controlled variable,” said Professor Barbara Forrest, a philosopher of science at Southeastern Louisiana State University. Such statement do little to console those who want their personal religion taught in public schools, but many of those folks don’t really care what the Constitution and the courts say anyway — unless it supports their beliefs.

This assignment is one school officials should study closely. Even giving the teacher the benefit of the doubt, this assignment is one that will raise eyebrows — and problems — every time it is assigned.

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