The voters of Missouri, by an overwhelming margin, have just voted to cripple their state in the global economic sweepstakes and to permit their children to be uneducated and unemployable in that economy.
The ballot in the election this week didn't say exactly that, of course, and the decision is unlikely to survive court challenges. But its impact is clear: as an example of a state surrendering its economic future to religious rigidity and political pandering, it's hard to beat.
The vote was on something called Amendment 2, which amended the state constitution to give Missourians -- including children in school -- the right to express their religious beliefs. That's what the official ballot title said. The official ballot language -- a sort of summary of the amendment -- said "that a citizen's right to express their (sic) religious beliefs regardless of their religion shall not be infringed and that the right to worship includes prayer in private or public settings, on government premises, on public property and in all public schools."
So far, so bad. Both the Missouri and the American Constitutions already guarantee freedom of religion, so that part of the amendment is unnecessary. Prayer in school and on government premises may or may not violate separation of church and state, but the amendment's language invites a court challenge that Missouri is likely to lose.
But the real mischief lies in the fine print of the full amendment, which asserts that "students may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work (and) no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs."
The amendment thus is the latest salvo in the "war on science" that columnist Thomas Friedman says is undermining America's ability to compete in the world. It is nothing but a thinly-veiled attack on the teaching of evolution and a back-door attempt to give creationism credibility in the classroom, by enabling students who believe in creationism to opt out of any teaching on evolution and, by extension, preventing teachers from punishing them, with bad grades, for their willful refusal to learn.
In other words, the amendment, if it stands, defends the right of Missouri children to leave school ignorant of science, and blocks attempts by serious teachers to do their jobs.
It should be obvious by now that the ability of Americans -- and of American states -- to compete in the global economy will rest on better education, especially in the so-called STEM subjects -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Well-educated students have a better chance to get a good job, and states with well-educated workers have a better chance to draw the global investment that brings future prosperity.
Missouri voters know this, or should. But they voted for the amendment, which enshrines ignorance, by no less than a five-to-one margin.
Over the past century and a half, the study of evolution has formed the basis of our understanding of humanity -- what we are and where we came from. Virtually no serious scientist, including many who believe in God, rejects it. No student of science can deny it and be taken seriously.
But evolution clearly contradicts the Biblical story of creation. For this reason, it has always drawn hot opposition from religious groups, from fundamentalists who adhere to the literal truth of Genesis to those who try to split the difference, by accepting evolution but arguing that it was created by a supreme being, usually God. It is this latter belief -- creationism or intelligent design -- that generates most of today's controversy, including the Missouri amendment.
Supporters of the amendment argued that it was necessary because America is rejecting religion and Christianity is under attack. In fact, it's science that is under attack, with plenty of public support. One Gallup poll showed that 45 percent of Americans support the Biblical account -- that God created humans pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago -- and another 37 percent accept creationism.
In other words, an overwhelming majority of Americans rejected a scientific theory accepted by most scientists as the basis of a solid education. Not surprisingly, a key battleground in this division has been the classroom, since the Scopes "Monkey Trial" in 1925 down to the trial in Dover, Pa. in 2005, when a judge flatly rejected a school board's attempt to make creationism part of the curriculum.
It's a vexed issue. On the one hand, shouldn't parents have the right to decide what their children are taught, especially in areas where deeply-held religious beliefs come into play?
On the other hand, what is the responsibility of professional educators who feel those parents are wrong? Schools have an obligation first to their students, to give them a good education, and then to society as a whole. If religious beliefs contradict known facts, teachers have a duty to their students -- all students -- to teach them the facts.
The battle has been joined over the years in border states such as Missouri and Kansas. But other Midwestern states are not immune. A study in Minnesota found that while some 60 percent of Minnesota biology teachers teach only evolution, in line with that state's public school policy, up to 25 percent teach only creationism, or both. (The rest teach neither, presumably out of fear of parents or school boards.)
The Missouri amendment so clearly offends the constitutional separation of church and state that it probably will be overturned. So it's most disturbing not because of its practical impact, which will be nil, but because of what it says about the willingness of a major state to sell out its future to political and religious scaremongers.
For politicians in an election year, amendments and referendums like this are a wonderful, if cynical, way to stir up the base. But the willingness of voters -- many of them presumably parents -- to acquiesce in the miseducation of the state's children is truly upsetting.
These voters may think the rest of the world doesn't notice. But it does. If you were an investor looking to put your money into an American state, would you choose one in which most voters favor a school system designed to produce uneducated and incompetent employees?