Wednesday, January 22, 2020
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SCOTUS won’t hear Kan. science/atheism case

The Supreme Court of the United States yesterday declined to hear a case from Kansas in which plaintiffs claimed the science standards adopted by the state in 2013 forced students to become atheists, the Associated Press reports.

The Supreme Court decision not to hear the case was delivered without comment. A group of parents and students, who oppose the new science standards, known as the Next Generation Science Standards, calls itself Citizens for Objective Public Education.

In denying the appeal from the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, the Supreme Court had to agree that the students and parents were not harmed in any way by the teaching of science as found in the NGSS.

COPE claimed in its original complaint that science education in Kansas schools was “indoctrinating impressionable young minds,” beginning at age 5 or 6, when those impressionable minds “lack the cognitive or mental development and scientific, mathematical, philosophical and theological sophistication necessary to enable them to critically analyze and question any of the information presented and to reach their own informed decision about what to believe about ultimate questions fundamental to all religions.”

What a mouthful. Anyway, the trial court and a three-judge panel for the 10th Circuit said that was too abstract. It could never, based on that evidence, prove that the science standards violated students’ rights under the First Amendment, namely the right to be free of an establishment of religion by the school and the right to practice any religion freely.

Still, COPE tried, dragging out that old “intelligent design” argument that masquerades, not so subtly, as creationism: “Because living systems appear to be ‘brilliantly’ and ‘superbly’ ‘designed for a purpose’ by a ‘sentient’ designer and because of religious training and belief acquired from family and the community, young children bring to public schools teleological conceptions of the natural world which conflict with the tenets of the materialistic/atheistic Orthodoxy,” which is what COPE claimed the NGSS were teaching.

By forcing students to answer questions like, “Where do we come from?” the group felt the schools were establishing a religion called atheism. By defying what students were taught at home, which is that a being in their dreams created the whole universe, the schools were denying students the right to practice their religion freely.

The argument just staggers my mind. I am stopped cold in my tracks. So was the 10th Circuit.

The Standards do not condemn any or all religions and do not target religious believers for disfavored treatment. And COPE offers only threadbare assertions that the Standards intend to promote a non-religious worldview. Thus, COPE’s allegations regarding adoption amount to psychological consequences produced by observation of conduct with which it disagrees.

That’s not good enough, and the judgment of the trial court was affirmed. Case closed.

A few other points: First, COPE can argue that the NGSS advance worldviews that differ from those held by the families of the students who were supposedly injured. But in their argument, the court found that the group failed to show that the standards condemn any religion or send any message of endorsement. If that could be shown, the NGSS would run afoul of the First Amendment, but it wasn’t shown.

Finally, individual school districts can choose not to use any curriculum that supports the NGSS. Because of this option at the local level, COPE is only speculating that injury will be caused, and that speculation does not give them standing in a lawsuit against the state school board. In fact, districts can include the alternative (religious) worldviews that COPE holds if they so choose, according to the court:

The Standards themselves encourage districts to teach the limits of scientific knowledge. They state that students should “develop an understanding that … science and engineering … are human endeavors,” and that some science- or engineering-related questions have “moral … underpinnings that vary across cultures,” the answers to which are “not solved by scientific and engineering methods alone.” Moreover, the Kansas NGSS Review Committee expressly recommends that districts “push beyond these standards” as they develop curricula. Because the Standards expressly recommend objective curricula, and the committee advises districts to add to the Standards, districts may choose to delve deeper into the limitations of the scientific method or to teach alternative origins theories.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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