TOPEKA, Kan. – An anti-evolution group filed a federal lawsuit Thursday to block Kansas from using new, multistate science standards in its public schools, arguing the guidelines promote atheism and violate students' and parents' religious freedom.
The group, Citizens for Objective Public Education, had criticized the standards developed by Kansas, 25 other states and the National Research Council for treating both evolution and climate change as key scientific concepts to be taught from kindergarten through 12th grade. The Kansas State Board of Education adopted them in June to replace evolution-friendly standards that had been in place since 2007.
The new standards, like the ones they replaced, reflect the mainstream scientific view that evolution is well-established. Most board members believed the guidelines will improve science education by shifting the emphasis in science classes to doing hands-on projects and experiments.
The nonprofit organization based in the small community of Peck, south of Wichita, was joined in its lawsuit by 15 parents from across the state with a total of 18 children -- most of them in public schools -- and two taxpayers from the Kansas City-area community of Lake Quivira. The parents say they're Christians who want to instill a belief in their children that "life is a creation made for a purpose."
"The state's job is simply to say to students, `How life arises continues to be a scientific mystery and there are competing ideas about it,"' said John Calvert, a Lake Quivira attorney involved in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit is against the state board, its 10 members, Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker and the state Department of Education. Neither DeBacker nor board Chairwoman Jana Shaver immediately returned telephone messages seeking comment.
Calvert was a key figure in past Kansas evolution debates as a founder of the Intelligent Design Network, contending that life is too complex to have developed through unguided evolution. Joshua Rosenau, programs and policy director for the Oakland, Calif.-based National Center for Science Education, said Calvert has been making such an argument for years and "no one in the legal community has put much stock in it."
"They're trying to say anything that's not promoting their religion is promoting some other religion," Rosenau said, dismissing the argument as "silly."
The case is the latest chapter in a long-running debate in Kansas over what to teach students about 19th century naturalist Charles Darwin's theories on evolution and scientific developments since. Kansas has had six different sets of science standards in the past 15 years, as conservative Republicans skeptical of evolution gained and lost board majorities.
The lawsuit argues that the new standards will cause Kansas public schools to promote a "non-theistic religious worldview" by allowing only "materialistic" or "atheistic" explanations to scientific questions, particularly about the origins of life and the universe. The suit further argues that state would be "indoctrinating" impressionable students in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution's protections for religious freedom.
Calvert said the new standards are particularly troubling because students would start learning evolutionary concepts in kindergarten.
"By the time you get into the third grade, you learn all the essential elements of Darwinian evolution," Calvert said. "By the time you're in middle school, you're a Darwinist."
Kansas uses its standards to develop statewide tests given to students each year to judge how well schools are teaching, which in turn influence what happens in classrooms. New tests could take up to four years to develop.
The lawsuit suggests that if the federal court won't block the standards completely, it could bar the state from implementing standards dealing with the origins of life and the universe until high school and require schools to incorporate "adequate and reasonably complete information" about those topics afterward.
The information included in the lawsuit is reminiscent of material skeptical of evolution inserted at the urging of Calvert and other intelligent design proponents in science guidelines adopted by a conservative-led State Board of Education in 2005.
Steven Case, director of the University of Kansas' science education center, said previous court rulings suggest that the new lawsuit "won't hold up."
"This is about as frivolous as lawsuits get," Case said.