Thursday, July 09, 2009



The Sensuous Curmudgeon has been following the tentative steps of the Spencer (Iowa) School Board as it prepares to wade into the deep waters of Establishment Clause jurisprudence. The Des Moines Register has provided a copy of the Board's Draft Policy on Religion which can be downloaded here. Some thoughts:

Right from the start there are questions about what's paramount in the Board's mind:

This nation was founded on the idea of religious liberty. A well rounded education must include an understanding of the ideas which molded the nation, many of which were religious.

For many years public education has often gone too far in excluding religious influences for fear of offense. The purpose of this policy is to restore balance to the issues.
Quite aside from the fact that the ideas of our country's founders, and the religious freedom they embraced, arose out of Enlightenment philosophy, particularly that of John Locke, much more than any religious traditions, which tended to support the divine right of kings and the exact opposite of freedom of conscience, why has the Board sought to take on this culture war? Shouldn't the Board properly focus on the children in their system rather than worrying what public education in general is doing?

Next we have this non sequitur:

2. Definitions

a. Religion-a specific system of belief which may or may not include a deity, is not limited to orthodox belief systems or practices.

b. Evolution – The belief that an unguided process of mutation and natural selection resulted in the existence of life on earth.
Why is evolution, a matter of science, being defined in a policy on religion in any case? It strongly suggests the Board is confused about the difference between the two. The definition reinforces that impression, in that it calls evolution a "belief," in direct comparison to religious belief. This is an issue already litigated in Edwards v. Aguillard and the Supreme Court has ruled that the government cannot teach that they are both religious concepts.

The next interesting part is this:

7. Religion in the Curriculum

a. Approach must be academic, not devotional.

1. Curriculum areas that overlap religious faith shall demonstrate respect for affected religious convictions.

2. Electives to be offered at Spencer High School:

a. The Bible in History and Literature

b. Critic of Darwinism, a scientific approach. (provide a balanced review of evidence for and against the theory of evolution, using texts which include "Darwin's Black Box" by M. Behe)
Now, you might expect that I'd focus on Behe's book being used and, indeed, the specification of it is a potential problem for the Board. Has there been a textbook evaluation by the professional staff as to its suitability for the course? Every time a board rushes to some sort of judgment, they are opening themselves up to claims of favoring religion. And will the Board give a "balanced" review of Behe's book by giving a representative sample of the overwhelmingly negative critique (I know the Board would want to know how to spell that) given to Behe's book by the scientific community?

More importantly, in the context of a policy on religion, why are only two electives offered -– one in the Bible and the other supposedly a science course? It would hardly be possible to more strongly signal to objective observers that conservative Christianity of the anti-evolution sort is being catered to by the Board -- short of putting up signs on all the school buildings saying "Proudly Affiliated with Focus on the Family," that is.

Actually much of the policy is a (more or less) correct statement of the First Amendment's requirements -- though, as always, the devil is in the details. When the Board gives details, it shows that it is about to step in the Dover Trap big time.

Last night the Board "tabled the Religious Liberty Policy to be discussed at a later work session." It would be wise if they consulted with the local ACLU and other organizations concerned with the separation of church and state before they take the policy up again.

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