KANSAS CITY, Kan. --God and Charles Darwin are not on the primary ballot in Kansas today, but once again a contentious schools election has religion and science at odds in a state that has restaged a three-quarter-century-old battle over the teaching of evolution.
Less than a year after a conservative Republican majority on the State Board of Education adopted the most far-reaching standards in the nation defining science education in ways that challenge Darwin's theory of evolution, moderate Republicans and Democrats are mounting a fierce counterattack to retake power and switch the standards back to what they call conventional science.
The Kansas election is being watched closely by both sides in the national debate over the way evolution should be taught in science classes. Over the past several years, there have been pitched battles between the scientific establishment and proponents of what is called intelligent design, which posits that nature alone cannot explain life's origin and complexity.
In February, the Ohio Board of Education reversed its 2002 order requiring 10th-grade biology classes to critically analyze evolution. The action followed a federal judge's ruling that teaching intelligent design in the public schools of Dover, Pa., was unconstitutional.
A defeat for the conservative majority in Kansas today could be further evidence of the fading fortunes of the intelligent design movement, while a victory would preserve an important stronghold in Kansas. The curriculum standards adopted by the education board do not refer to intelligent design, but advocates of the belief lobbied for the changes and students are urged to seek "more adequate explanations of natural phenomena."
Though there are no reliable polling data available, Joseph Aistrup, head of political science at Kansas State University in Manhattan said sharp ideological splits among Republicans and an unusual community of interest among moderate Republicans and some Democrats are aiding challengers in the primary.
Kansas Democrats, moreover, have a strong standard-bearer in the incumbent governor, Kathleen Sebelius, who has distanced herself from the debate, Aistrup said.
"And if a conservative candidate makes it through the primary, there's a Democratic challenger waiting" in the general election, he said.
Several of the moderate Republican candidates have vowed, if they lose today, to support the Democratic primary winners in November. With the campaign enlivened by a crowded field of 16 candidates contending for five seats - four held by conservatives who voted for the new science standards last year - a shift of two seats could overturn the current 6-4 majority.
The four-year terms are staggered so that only half the 10-member board is up for election each two years.
The acrimony in the school board races is not limited to differences over the science curriculum but also over other ideologically charged issues such as sex education, charter schools and education financing.
Power on the board has seesawed almost every election since 1998, with the current conservative majority taking hold in 2004.