A group of Wyoming churches has voiced its support for a set of educational benchmarks that are controversial in Wyoming for what they expect students to know about global climate change and evolution.
The Wyoming Association of Churches said last week that it supports the Next Generation Science Standards because science should be taught openly and not be based on any belief system. A leader in the group said the state Legislature's recent move to block the standards infringed on students' rights.
The churches say teaching evolution in public schools should not be an issue for people of faith.
Their rhetoric contrasts with what several concerned religious parents told the state Board of Education at an April meeting where the Next Generation standards were last publicly discussed.
Several parents lambasted the K-12 standards for presenting an "atheistic" worldview by teaching evolution.
"It's just a historical statement," said the Rev. Warren Murphy, a Cody-based Episcopalian minister and environmental projects coordinator for the Wyoming Association of Churches. "None of us have any problems with understanding evolution, and it does not interfere with faith."
The Wyoming Association of Churches represents about 10 Protestant denominations statewide. No representative of the Roman Catholic Church is identified on a list of jurisdictions on the group's website.
Conflicts arise when the Bible is taken literally, Murphy said, which some sects of Christianity do. A literal or fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible suggests that the Earth is about 6,000 years old, he said. The Next Generation standards say the Earth is 4.6 billion years old.
When dealing with evolution, the Next Generation standards suggest that students should be able to identify differences between organisms living today and organisms in the fossil record to reconstruct evolutionary descent, among other things.
The standards, which are guidelines school districts and teachers use when picking textbooks and lesson plans, were developed by 26 states and several national science education groups.
To date, nine states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards.
Science and religion
Tension between religious belief and science is not unique to the Next Generation standards, Murphy said.
He cited the historic Scopes Trial of 1925, when a crusade to banish Darwin's theory of evolution from American classrooms put a high school biology teacher on trial for "illegally" teaching evolution in Tennessee.
A court eventually dismissed the case, but not without thousands of bystanders witnessing a days-long standoff between ideals of biblical fundamentalism and scientific discovery.
"Science is important, peer-proven," Murphy said. "Faith is something else. It shouldn't interfere with what science is doing. ... Whether it was 6,000 years ago or Adam and Eve or dinosaurs, it was all created by God."
Mary Walker, a Jackson-based representative for the Wyoming Association of Churches, said that science and faith can go hand in hand but that they are two separate things.
It is a right of parents and students to agree or disagree with what's being taught in classrooms, but it is not the state's or any one parent's right to restrict from children the opportunity to learn about evolution or other topics, like climate change, she said.
"Our concern isn’t fighting the Legislature, and it's not to take issue with other people's faith," Murphy said. "It’s simply saying faith is a belief system; science isn't. Let’s keep them separate."
Not everyone agrees.
A statement to the Board of Education published by the nonprofit Wyoming Citizens Opposing the Common Core called the standards "opinionated" and asserted that they will present an atheistic worldview. The statement questioned whether the origins and nature of life are appropriate questions to ask in a science classroom.
In its release, the churches called on the Wyoming Board of Education to adopt educational standards that include climate change science, another touchy topic for lawmakers who crafted the budget footnote blocking the standards, and environmental advocates and scientists who lashed back.
One of the footnote's authors, Rep. Matt Teeters, R-Lingle, told the Star-Tribune in an interview at the time the footnote passed that he was concerned that teaching global warming in Wyoming classrooms would harm the state's economy, which relies heavily on revenue from the oil and gas industry.
Murphy said the group does not necessarily back the Next Generation standards as "the best thing out there."
"We're just saying that they need to be talked about and discussed," he said. "You don't hide the truth based on how much money you're going to make. That's not good science, and that's not good religion."
A committee will convene in July and August to review the state's science standards, as instructed by the state Board of Education after the footnote passed.
The Wyoming Department of Education has said that documents containing any part of the Next Generation standards cannot be discussed.