When the Kansas board of education voted to trade its science standards for a national model, board member Ken Willard predicted doing so would spark a lawsuit. Three months later, his prediction came true. Nine families and a nonprofit have sued the state in federal court, charging the Next Generation Science Standards establish a secular humanist religion within public schools and violate their religious freedom.
NGSS’s curriculum and test mandates are “non-objective” on scientific controversies, particularly global warming and evolution, Willard said: “[These controversies] are presented as fact rather than as a debatable issue.” The board voted 8-2 to adopt NGSS in June.
The lawsuit could upend not just science instruction in Kansas and other NGSS states, but also public schools’ default enforcement of secular humanism, said E. Calvin Beisner, president of the Cornwall Alliance, a Christian nonprofit focused on environmental stewardship.
Failure of Neutrality Test
The standards “assume matter and energy is all that exists,” he said. “That is a religious position. So the science standards fail the Supreme Court’s religious neutrality test. They favor one religious worldview over all other religious worldviews.”
Although public schools have retreated to an absence of religion to avoid religious disputes, in 1961 the Supreme Court ruled secular humanism, which includes atheism, is also a religion: “religion … is an aspect of human thought and action which profoundly relates the life of man to the world in which he lives,” it said in McGowan v. Maryland.
“If it’s religious to believe in God, it’s got to be religious to not believe in God,” Beisner said.
Eight of the families suing are Christians whose children attend public schools. The ninth joined the suit as taxpayers who oppose government-supported religion.
Seven states have adopted NGSS since the standards were published in April, and 26 have committed to consider doing so. Because NGSS was designed to fit with national math and English standards called Common Core, several state leaders have said they expect most states will adopt the science standards, too.
The Kansas department of education and state board remain committed to NGSS and are reviewing legal options, said spokeswoman Denise Kahler: “You bring in who you believe to be the right people that have researched the issue thoroughly and … you develop standards you believe in.”
NGSS was written by an assortment of federal agencies, nonprofits, state employees, and scientific organizations. A state committee recommended Kansas choose NGSS because they considered it “a significant improvement over our current standards.”
But the only independent evaluation of NGSS graded the standards a C for, among other things, an “acute dearth of math content, even in situations where math is essential.” It also found they “omit essential science content” including almost all high school chemistry. The evaluation rates Kansas’s previous science standards “clearly superior” to NGSS.
Answering Ultimate Questions
Although science can study and posit theories about the natural world, it cannot prove God does or does not exist or answer ultimate questions such as “How did humans get here?” said John Calvert, a lawyer for the Kansas families. Despite this limitation, NGSS pushes children to accept that science does answer these questions, he said, with answers that lead to atheism.
The standards have children learn evidence to support evolution, for example, but none that critiques the various theories of human origin.
“The standards lead the child to believe that evidence for a creator is an illusion,” Calvert said.
The standards also accept only physical explanations for the causes of phenomena such as the origin of the universe, the genetic code, and life itself, say comments on NGSS from Citizens for Objective Public Education, the nonprofit party to the lawsuit. The standards assume human-created systems are designed but natural ones are not, the organization says.
The complaint alleges such instruction in public schools violates the U.S. Constitution’s provision banning government from establishing religion and its equal protection clause by preferencing atheism in public schools.
This forces taxpayers to pay for religious instruction many disagree with, interferes with parents’ right to direct their children’s religious instruction, and violates students’ “right to not be indoctrinated to accept a particular view,” Calvert said.
Illusion of Neutrality
The plaintiffs are asking the court to require public schools either avoid religious topics or provide students with evidence that may lead people to answer such questions differently.
Beisner thinks it’s impossible for a school to be neutral toward religion altogether.
“Too many people think there is a qualitative difference between faith or belief, on the one hand, and scientific conclusions on the other,” he said. “But faith or belief is simply affirmation of propositions. What you think is true is your belief, whether you think it’s true because of divine revelation or hallucination or because you did a scientific experiment and observed the outcome.”
He says schools cannot be neutral on religion because, as the Supreme Court has said, how you think about humans and the universe constitutes religious belief.
“If we think there should be religiously neutral schools, we should conclude there should be no government-supported schools,” Beisner said. “I cannot figure out how it makes sense to entrust to the government the shaping of the minds of the citizens upon whose consent the government is supposed to be based.”
Image by Michael Mueller.