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U.S. Supreme Court Won't Hear Religious Argument Against Science Standards

By Mark Walsh

This post originally appeared on the School Law blog.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear the appeal of a group of Kansas parents and students who object on religious grounds to the state's adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards.

The group alleged in a lawsuit against the Kansas state education department that the standards, developed by 26 states based on a framework published by the National Research Council, address religious questions by removing a "theistic" viewpoint and creating a "non-theistic worldview" in science instruction in the public schools. 

The lawsuit by a group called Citizens for Objective Public Education said that in addressing questions such as "where do we come from?", the Next Generation standards rely on an "orthodoxy called Methodological Naturalism or Scientific Materialism and a variety of other deceptive methods to lead impressionable children, beginning in kindergarten, to answer the questions with only materialistic/atheistic answers," as the group said in its Supreme Court appeal.

The group argued that Kansas's 2013 adoption of science standards based on the Next Generation Science Standards and the National Research Council's framework constituted an unconstitutional government establishment of religion and also violated the First Amendment free exercise of religion rights of the families.

A federal district court held in 2014 that the group and its members lacked standing to bring the suit because the alleged injuries were abstract.

In an April decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, unanimously upheld the district court and rejected COPE's theories of legal injury.

"COPE does not offer any facts to support the conclusion that the Standards condemn any religion or send a message of endorsement," the 10th Circuit 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 U.S. Supreme Court asked Kansas to respond to COPE's appeal, and the state stressed that curriculum decisions remain a matter for local school districts.

"Although Kansas law requires the state board of education to establish curriculum standards, locally elected school boards remain free to determine their own curricula," said the brief filed by Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt. He added that COPE had not alleged that any children involved in the suit attended school districts where the science standards had been implemented.

The Supreme Court issued a short order on Nov. 14 declining without comment to hear the group's appeal in COPE v. Kansas State Board of Education (Case No. 16-229).


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