By Carey Gillam
TOPEKA, Kan. (Reuters) - The Kansas Board of Education rejected evolution as a scientific principle Wednesday, dealing a victory to religious conservatives who are increasingly challenging science education in U.S. schools.
The 10-member board, ignoring pleas by educators and established scientists, voted six to four to embrace new standards for science curricula that eliminate evolution as an underlying principle of biology and other sciences.
"Evolution has been removed," board member Janet Waugh, who opposed the new standard, said in a packed conference room near the state capitol. "Instead of Kansas' curriculum having more and more credibility, it will have less and less."
The board voted on a modified version of curriculum guidelines for grades kindergarten through high school that eliminates evolution as a way to describe the emergence of new species -- for instance the evolution of primates into homo sapiens -- while leaving intact references to "microevolution," or changes that occur within a single species.
The theory of evolution was developed by 19th-century British scientist Charles Darwin. His discoveries were famously argued in the 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial," in which the state of Tennessee put teacher John Thomas Scopes on trial for knowingly infringing a law banning the teaching of evolution.
Defended by prominent trial attorney Clarence Darrow, Scopes was convicted and fined the minimum $100 but the verdict was reversed on a technicality by the state Supreme Court.
Prior to Wednesday's vote, the presidents of Kansas' six public universities wrote a letter saying the new standards "will set Kansas back a century and give hard-to-find science teachers no choice but to pursue other career fields or assignments outside of Kansas.
"The argument that teaching evolution will destroy a student's faith in God is no more true today than it was during the Scopes trial in 1925," the letter said.
Banning evolution from the classroom gave conservative forces a victory after previous attempts to eliminate evolution in states including Alabama, Arizona, Georgia and Nebraska.
Religious groups have argued that evolution cannot be proven, and some feel that evolution is not in accordance with Biblical teachings regarding the origins of life.
Teaching evolution misleads students, said Tom Willis, director of the Creation Science Association for Mid-America, which helped write Kansas' curriculum proposal.
"It's deception," Willis said prior to the vote. "You can't go into the laboratory or the field and make the first fish. When you tell students that science has determined (evolution to be true), you're deceiving them."
Dozens of books have been published in the past two decades challenging the validity of evolution, bearing titles such as "The Facts of Life: Shattering the Myths of Darwinism," and "The Neck of the Giraffe: Where Darwin Went Wrong."
In Kansas, a 27-member state science committee spent a year writing the new curriculum standards for elementary and high school students that were based on national education standards and included evolution.
But this spring, a school board member introduced a competing proposal to remove evolution theories from classrooms. The board deadlocked over the matter in May, and the issue has since roiled political circles and prompted angry debate.
Kansas Gov. Bill Graves, a Republican, warned board members not to adopt the anti-evolution curriculum, and has said he would support an effort to abolish the Board of Education.
"It's frustrating and it makes me angry," said Steve Case, a member of the state science committee and a University of Kansas instructor. "There is potentially great damage that can be done to students in Kansas."
Prior attempts by religious groups to include "creation science," or Creationism, in school curricula included a failed attempt in Arkansas to require that it be taught alongside evolution.
In 1982, an Arkansas federal judge overturned the law, ruling it violated the constitutional clause barring the establishment of religion by the state. He said that creation science was not a valid science, had no secular educational purpose, but served only to promote religion. A similar law in Louisiana was struck down later the same year.