A worry from Missouri

Is a new amendment to the Missouri state constitution going to undermine the teaching of evolution in the state's public schools? On August 7, 2012, voters overwhelmingly approved a proposal (PDF) to revise a portion of the state constitution that concerns freedom of religion. Among the revisions was the addition of a provision "that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs." And that provision, as NCSE's Joshua Rosenau told Science Insider (August 14, 2012), is worrisome from the point of view of science education: "Those words give students the legal right to skip assignments related to evolution if the subject matter conflicts with their beliefs, Rosenau says."

Evolution was not mentioned in the proposal and was not apparently mentioned in the legislature's discussion of House Joint Resolution 2, the instrument that placed the proposal on the ballot. Opponents of the proposal warned, however, that the integrity of science education was at stake. Michael McKay of the Skeptical Society of St. Louis told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (July 30, 2012) that "if the amendment passes, students could graduate from school without having taken an important science class, avoid learning about evolution," and The New York Times (August 6, 2012) editorially expressed a similar concern that the proposal "would allow students who believe in creationism, for example, to opt out of assignments on evolution."

Susan German, president of the Science Teachers of Missouri, told Science Insider, "It could be an issue. There are teachers that work in very conservative districts and they already have students on a yearly basis that voice their concerns about having to learn some of these concepts," and recommended that her colleagues "wait and see what the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education advises them to do" before taking any action in light of the new amendment. It remains to be seen whether teachers will be expected to provide substitute assignments for students who object to assignments on evolution and whether schools and the state will be prohibited from testing such students from their understanding of the material covered in such assignments.

"It's a recipe for disaster," commented NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott. "With the new amendment in place, Missouri's biology teachers are bound to receive a flurry of requests — or demands — for students to be excused from learning about evolution. And that's going to create trouble, since nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." Citing a 2008 article she and NCSE's Glenn Branch published in Evolution: Education and Outreach 1(2), she argued that if teachers are forced to accommodate such requests, the result would be disruptive for the classroom, burdensome for teachers, and problematic for administrators, as well as harmful to the scientific literacy of the students excused.