Nearly ten years ago, on February 19, 2008, the Florida State Board of Education voted by the narrowest possible margin, 4-3, to adopt science standards for the state’s K-12 public schools that included the theory of evolution.
The board’s vote was not a broad scientific attack on religious faith. After all, my Catholic Church supports a scientific understanding of biological evolution and cosmology. A Jesuit priest, Georges Lemaître, was a pioneer in developing the Big Bang Theory in the 1920’s. Recent popes have expressed their acceptance of the theories of evolution and the Big Bang.
But there are some faith traditions that object strenuously to these scientific ideas for doctrinal reasons, and those traditions are heavily represented among Florida’s citizens. No amount of legislating or outstanding science teaching is ever going to resolve the concerns that members of these churches have about the teaching of evolution and cosmology in their children’s schools.
Just before the State Board of Education vote ten years ago, the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) published the results of a poll in which Florida parents were asked about the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Only 22% of parents polled said they wanted public schools to teach an evolution-only curriculum, while 50% wanted only faith-based theories such as creationism or intelligent design taught.
It’s unlikely that those percentages have changed very much.
So have the science standards adopted in 2008 done any good, even if the doctrinal objections to evolution and cosmology held by so many Floridians haven’t been overturned?
I’m convinced the answer is that the standards have done tremendous good, and that the watchdog group Florida Citizens for Science deserves an enormous amount of credit for that. A discussion held at a recent Nassau County School Board meeting (reported by Florida Citizens for Science Treasurer and Communications Director Brandon Haught) provides an excellent illustration of why.
The discussion in Nassau County was initiated by a citizen named Jay Shutt who took advantage of Florida’s new law on challenging educational materials to argue that Nassau County should “stop the teaching of Darwinian evolution as fact.” Shutt revealed his primary concern at the beginning of his comments at the board meeting – the possibility that the teaching of evolution could “crush” the religious faith of Nassau County’s students.
Every speaker at the meeting expressed sympathy with Shutt’s concerns. But in the end, the school board decided to continue teaching evolution in Nassau County classrooms because the science standards and legal precedent required it, and because ignoring the law would invite legal challenges – including one from Florida Citizens for Science.
Because of Florida’s science standards and the Florida Citizens for Science, Nassau County students who are not members of churches that require members to believe in a young earth creationist picture continue to have access to scientifically accurate instruction. And even students who are members of those churches can at least find out why scientists have reached their conclusions.
Florida’s ten-year-old science standards are doing their job, thanks to the Florida Citizens for Science. It’s worth celebrating the anniversary of the standards and the vigilance of their guardians.