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Religious Challenge to Next Generation Science Standards Rejected By Fed. Court

By guest blogger Mark Walsh

This post originally appeared on the School Law blog

A group alleging that the K-12 science education standards adopted by Kansas will result in anti-religious instruction in the state's public schools lacked standing to bring such a suit, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The ruling came in the case of Citizens for Objective Public Education (COPE), which objects to science standards adopted by the Kansas State Board of Education in 2013. The state board adopted a framework published by the National Research Council and the Next Generation Science Standards developed by a group of 26 states. 

As with most such standards, they are focused on what students in a particular grade should know and be able to do, but they are not a curriculum.

COPE alleged in its suit that the state standards were a de facto science curriculum that establish a non-religious worldview because they teach students from an early age about the origins and nature of life with only non-religious explanations such as the theory of evolution. The group said this amounted to an unconstitutional government establishment of religion.

A federal district court rejected COPE's suit, ruling that the group and its members could not create standing for a First Amendment establishment clause claim.

In its April 19 decision in Citizens for Objective Public Education v. Kansas State Board of Education, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, unanimously agreed with the lower court.

The appeals court said any legal injury from the adoption of the standards was speculative because school districts could choose not to embrace the state standards, and they could develop curricula that taught alternatives to origin theories.

"COPE does not offer any facts to support the conclusion that the [Kansas] standards condemn any religion or send a message of endorsement," the court said. "And any fear of biased instruction is premised on COPE's predictions of school districts' responses to the standards—an attempt by COPE to recast a future injury as a present one."

The appeals court said it wasn't ruling on the merits of COPE's claims, but it noted that the group seemed to be seeking a requirement that if schools teach evolution, they also teach what the group calls "supernatural" or "teleological" origins theories.

The court said such a requirement would be "identical" to the requirement imposed by a Louisiana law that prohibited that state's public schools from teaching evolution unless they also taught the theory of "creation science."

The appeals court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Louisiana law as a violation of the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution in the 1987 case of Edwards v. Aguillard.


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