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New Law Allowing Religion into Science Classrooms Is Dangerous for Everyone

I grew up a creationist in the rural southeastern U.S. I am now a scientist, educator, wife, mother and person of faith. Regardless of whether you practice religion, you should fight to prohibit the teaching of nonscientific alternative ideas in science classrooms and use your vote and your voice to prevent the inclusion of religious beliefs in public education. A recently signed law in West Virginia illustrates why.

I often hear lamentations about the removal of God from public schools. These sentiments are based on a misinterpretation of the principle of the separation of church and state. In the U.S., religious beliefs and practices are protected and situated in their rightful place within people’s homes and communities so that individuals can choose what to teach their children regarding religion. Kids can still pray whenever they wish, gather with their peers, create faith-based groups or even nondisruptively practice their faith in school. Separating state and church means young people cannot be compelled to engage in religious actions by someone in a position of power, such as a teacher, administrator or lawmaker. Separation of church and state is as critical to people of faith as it is to those who do not practice faith traditions. The protection of personal religious freedoms was a vital component of the foundation of our nation.

On March 22 West Virginia governor Jim Justice signed a bill that purports to protect the ability of the state’s public school educators to teach scientific theories. There is no actual problem that the new law would solve, however; none of its supporters produced a teacher who plausibly claimed to have been oppressed. But the legislative history of the bill, known as Senate Bill 280, makes it clear that its real aim is to encourage educators to teach religiously motivated “alternatives” to evolution. As introduced, SB 280 would have expressly allowed the teaching of “intelligent design” in West Virginia’s public schools.

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The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), of which I am the executive director, monitors attempts to undermine the accurate and robust teaching of science education in K–12 public school classrooms. Most often, these attempts die in committee or fail to pass in state legislatures to become a law. This particular West Virginia bill appeared in a prior session and passed the state’s Senate in February 2023 before dying in the House Education Committee. This session, the Senate Education Committee adjusted the wording to remove the term “intelligent design” in favor of “scientific theories,” conspicuously failing to explain what that term does and does not include. During the floor discussion of Senate Bill 280, however, its sponsor, Amy Grady (Republican, District 4), declared that even as amended, the bill would protect the teaching of “intelligent design” in West Virginia’s public schools.

It’s been 19 years since a federal court in neighboring Pennsylvania took up the issue of whether “intelligent design,” like its predecessor “creation science,” can be constitutionally taught in public schools. Presiding over the case Kitzmiller v. Dover, Judge John E. Jones III, appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush, found that it cannot be. There was no appeal of his meticulous decision, and no court has ruled otherwise.

The policy makers in West Virginia would have done well to consult the decision in Kitzmiller. They would have learned about the legal perils awaiting any teacher or district unwise enough to invoke the protection of the newly enacted law in defense of teaching “intelligent design”; in Pennsylvania, the Dover Area School Board ended up paying more than $1 million of the plaintiffs’ legal fees. They might also have realized that their motivations rested on some common misconceptions.

The first misconception is that learning about evolution threatens students’ faith. Evolutionary biology, like any area of modern science, is simply a body of knowledge about the natural world and a set of methods and procedures for attaining, refining and testing that knowledge. Nothing in evolutionary biology denies the existence of God or places constraints on divine activity. Evolutionary biologists include people of many faiths and of none, and evolutionary biology is routinely taught in institutions of higher education, whether public or private, secular or sectarian, as the well-established area of modern science that it is.

A second misconception is that exposing students to “intelligent design” promotes religious freedom. (The proponents of “intelligent design” often claim their views have no religious motivation, but frame it otherwise when it suits their purposes.) On the contrary, because “intelligent design” reflects a narrow sectarian rejection of evolution, teaching it in school actually harms religious freedom.

The division of church and state is crucial for the religious freedom of everyone in the U.S. Yet some people hope for the undoing of this separation of religion and political power, mainly because they expect that those in power will share their particular religious beliefs. They should stop and think very carefully about the possible consequences of temporarily having their way.

In particular, with Senate Bill 280 now on the books, West Virginia educators are free to teach whatever “scientific theories” they please. With no definition of “scientific theories” in the law, a few misguided educators may present creationism—either old-fashioned “creation science” or newfangled and equally unscientific “intelligent design”—as a result. But the sky’s the limit. Why not geocentrism or flat-Earthery? Why not crystal healing? Why not racist views claiming that white people and Black people have separate ancestry? All of these notions, which stem from religious beliefs, not science, have been held up by their proponents as scientific theories, and West Virginia’s legislature and governor just opened the public classroom door to them.

West Virginia is only one state, but others—Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee—have similar laws on the books. As the nation continues to polarize along religious and political lines, more states may follow, compromising both science education and religious freedom.

For these reasons, people of all faiths and none should unite in fighting for religious freedom, including by ensuring that religiously motivated but unscientific “alternatives” to science are not allowed in public school classrooms. Failure to maintain the separation of church and state, and to instead favor a particular sectarian view, opens a door that, one day, people will wish could be closed.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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