Last week, Missouri voters gave themselves the right to pray without state interference. But some science educators are worried that the seemingly innocuous referendum on the 7 August ballot, which passed overwhelmingly, could also undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools.
Amendment 2 "is a lawyer's dream" because of its vagueness, says Joshua Rosenau, programs and policy director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, which tracks efforts by groups that oppose evolution. While the amendment begins by declaring that all residents "have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences," it also lists several situations in which that right must be protected. Rosenau is worried about one particular clause: "that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs."
Those words give students the legal right to skip assignments related to evolution if the subject matter conflicts with their beliefs, Rosenau says. And that exemption could extend throughout their scholastic career, he adds, since evolution is not just taught in one lesson but remains a recurrent theme throughout science education. The amendment also leaves a hole in their coursework, he says, as it provides no guidance on any substitute lessons.
That silence could cause trouble for Missouri teachers, says Susan German, president of the Science Teachers of Missouri (STOM) and a middle school teacher. "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."
German says she has handled such challenges in the past by explaining to her students that "science is not a belief system; it is based on testable questions. I'm just trying to teach you concepts that are foundational to the realm of science, not change your belief system." But she suggests that her colleagues "wait and see what the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education advises them to do" before changing their lesson plans.
Mike Hoey, a supporter of the amendment and executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, thinks that Rosenau is "overanalyzing" the language in the amendment. "I don’t think this will affect science in the classroom in any significant way,” he says. “I think the vast majority of students will want to participate in all units of their science classes." The amendment makes no mention of providing an alternative curriculum, Hoey adds. So any student who opts out of a biology lesson, he says, “will need to face the consequences” of missing those lessons.