The Evolution of Anti-Evolution Legislation: Missouri

Over the last few years, Missouri’s legislature has drawn lots of national attention, and usually not for good reasons. Both houses of our legislature are controlled by a supermajority of Republicans, so though our Democratic Governor can keep some semblance of balance, any of his vetoes can be overridden by a unified GOP. This means that there’s really not much of a check or a balance to keep the most extreme views of the Republican party to be shown on display.

And boy, are they ever on display.

There was the bill that would make it a felony to propose gun control legislation. There is a new bill that proposes bringing back firing squads for executions. And perhaps most absurdly, there’s a proposed constitutional amendment that would (unconstitutionally) nullify any action from Washington that the Tea Party doesn’t like, including gun control, abortion, climate change response, Obamacare, gay marriage, hate crime, separation of church and state, child protection, and treating the United States Constitution like a living document.

Fortunately, many of these bills have failed, either in the legislature at initial consideration or by being too extreme to overcome a veto. However, one area in which they have sometimes been successful has been in sneaking religion into the classrooms.

In 2012, the Legislature sent to the electorate a constitutional amendment called the Right-To-Pray Amendment. As you can imagine, the proposal with that name passed in the same sort of landslide that you would see for a “I Love Puppies And/Or Kittens” poll on an animal welfare website. What neither the name of the referendum nor the ballot language hinted at was the clause that affected classroom education:

that students may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work; that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs

This means that Mormon students will be able to demand an A for a paper that says that Native Americans are descendants of a tribe of Israel. This means that Hare Krishna students get to insist on As when they deny the moon landing because that’s a tenet of their religion. This means that fringe Christian students will be able to demand an A for a paper that says that the Earth is flat and the center of the Universe. This means, essentially, that any teacher of science or history has to be ready to endorse as equally valid any notion that a student claims is core to her religion.

Darwin's First Tree
Darwin’s First Tree

Including, of course, Creationism.

This indirect and deceptive attack on Evolutionary science was successful, and I’m nervous about the hidden damage this is causing in schools across the state.

Fortunately, more direct attacks on Evolution in the last few years haven’t been so successful. In 2012 and 2013, Representative Rick Brattin (the guy who suggested reinstating the firing squad) proposed identical bills with the Orwellian name “Missouri Standard Science Act”. These bills would have completely redefined science to be able to demand that teachers give as much time to the often-tested and much-validated Theory of Evolution as to the failed hypothesis of Intelligent Design. As you can imagine, there was a lot of pushback from scientists and civil libertarians, and fortunately the bill didn’t go anywhere, either year.

As the new legislative session has been starting up in Jefferson City, I have been watching the Missouri House of Representatives Bill List, expecting to see the “Missouri Standard Science Act” pop up again, but apparently Rep. Brattin has had decided on a new tactic; forget all of this Intelligent Design nonsense and just keep kids away from Evolution. Here’s the text of the new bill (HB 1472):

1. Any school district or charter school which provides instruction relating to the theory of evolution by natural selection shall be required to have a policy on parental notification and a mechanism where a parent can choose to remove the student from any part of the district’s or school’s instruction on evolution. The policy shall require the school district or charter school to notify the parent or legal guardian of each student enrolled in the district of:
    (1) The basic content of the district’s or school’s evolution instruction to be provided to the student; and
    (2) The parent’s right to remove the student from any part of the district’s or school’s evolution instruction.
2. A school district or charter school shall make all curriculum materials used in the district’s or school’s evolution instruction available for public inspection under chapter 610 prior to the use of such materials in actual instruction.

Of course, the National Center for Science Education is on the case:

NCSE’s deputy director Glenn Branch commented, “House Bill 1472 would eviscerate the teaching of biology in Missouri.” Quoting “The OOPSIE Compromise — A Big Mistake,” which Eugenie C. Scott and he wrote for Evolution: Education and Outreach in 2008, he added, “Evolution inextricably pervades the biological sciences; it therefore pervades, or at any rate ought to pervade, biology education at the K–12 level. There simply is no alternative to learning about it; there is no substitute activity. A teacher who tries to present biology without mentioning evolution is like a director trying to produce Hamlet without casting the prince.” Teachers, schools, and districts would suffer as well, Branch observed. “The value of a high school education in Missouri would be degraded.”

Tree of life with genome size
Tree of life with genome size

Brattin’s efforts to damage science education by mandating equal time for Intelligent Design failed in the past few years, but with his new approach, he might have a chance. After all, the appeal to “let parents have the final say” is tempting for legislators, even when that appeal unfairly and unreasonably is restricted to a single area of solid scientific knowledge.

Let’s work together to fight these bills that damage science education, weaken the ability of our children to understand and address complex issues, unfairly taint Evolution as a suspect course of study, and have the potential to hurt Missouri’s growing biotechnology industry.

To combat the bill, as a voter and taxpayer in Missouri, I sent this message to Rep. Brattin, his co-sponsor, and to my Representative, who fortunately supports good science education:

I am a Missouri resident, taxpayer, and constituent of Redacted‘s District Redacted. I am writing in response to the filing of House Bill 1472 to ask you to reconsider your sponsorship and co-sponsorship of this bill.

House Bill 1472 singles out Evolutionary Science as a topic from which the students of Missouri need special protection. This bill is a problem because it treats evolution as different from other science. If students are told that evolution, and only evolution, should be considered suspect, they are given an inaccurate impression of both science and the nature of Evolution.

Evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology. As Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”. Evolution is a scientific theory that grew out of observations about fossils and living species in the 19th Century, but it has grown to encompass much more since then. Many lines of evidence come together to support the conclusions of Evolutionary theory, including biogeography, paleontology, embryology, morphology, genetics, and molecular chemistry. Evolution has been under continual attack, examination, and reconsideration since it was proposed 150 years ago, and it has survived all of the challenges. To single out Evolution for special treatment is to undervalue the power and importance of Evolution in explaining how life came to be as we know it.

Further, biotechnology is an important and growing industry for Missouri. By exempting Missouri children from learning about this important science, Missouri would be sabotaging its ability to compete and innovate in the scientific and economic spheres. Without scientific advancement, America’s pre-eminence in technology, business, communications, the military, and every other field cannot be maintained. Sacrificing Missouri’s future by misleading our students is a horrible bargain.

It’s not fair to science, and it’s not fair to the students.

Please reconsider your sponsorship of these bills.

In addition to Rep. Brattin’s HB 1472, there’s another bill called the “Missouri Student Religious Liberties Act” that might be used as a sneaky way to force teachers to accept Creationism from students, but the damage in that area was probably already done by the Right-to-Pray Amendment in 2012. Given that, unless Rep. Brattin revives the “Missouri Standard Science Act”, HB 1472 appears to be the main threat to good science education in Jefferson City this session.

If you live in Missouri and care about science, education, and our children’s future, please send something like what I wrote this to your Representative to combat this bad bill. And if you don’t live in Missouri, please keep an eye on your legislature: this sort of religious interference with scientific education happens throughout the country.

And wherever you live, please join me in supporting the National Center for Science Education, the most effective organization in defense of science education in America today.

Featured Image credit: RebelAt
Darwin’s First Tree: Public Domain
Tree of life with genome size credit: Gringer


Lance is the father of two boys, a software developer, and an occasional world traveler. Now an active member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, he grew up in an Evangelical Lutheran home in which he took Christianity very seriously. Fortunately, going to college helped him break through to see that he believed because he thought he was supposed to, not because it makes sense. Now he's glad to be more than just a SIWOTI skeptic. @LMFinney

Related Articles

One Comment

Leave a Reply