The culture wars have returned to the Missouri House of Representatives, where proposed legislation regarding deeply divisive issues like gun control, abortion and evolution surface virtually every session.
This year's crop of such bills includes HB 291, which would require the teaching of "intelligent design" in public school classrooms. Also known as the Missouri Standard Science Act, the legislation recently cleared a preliminary hurdle by getting referred to the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, whose members include Rep. Mike Thomson of Maryville.
Intelligent design is a form of creationism, the idea that the universe, and by extension all life on earth, including humans, was created by a divine being rather than evolving through strictly naturalistic processes.
Proponents argue that intelligent design is an evidence-driven theory about life's origins not necessarily based on religion. Opponents counter that it is simply creationism or religious fundamentalism dressed up as science.
Speaking to reporters last week following an event at Northwest Missouri State University, Thomson, an active member of Maryville's Laura Street Baptist Church, said the bill, should it move forward, will present him with some difficult decisions.
"We're in the Bible Belt, and people here have a lot of faith," Thomson said. "And I'm not saying they're wrong, because I happen to be a believer."
But on the other hand, Thomson said, HB 291 amounts to an unfunded mandate on local school districts and would force them to rewrite established curriculum and buy new textbooks and other classroom materials.
A former teacher, coach and school counselor who is considered one of the Legislature's leading experts on education policy, Thomson has generally opposed such mandates and is a strong proponent of local district control.
Should the Missouri Standard Science Act become law, it would require that all public school textbooks addressing biological origin be written is such as way as to give equal, page-for-page treatment to both evolution and intelligent design.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary would be required to negotiate with publishers to ensure the availability of textbooks meeting the new requirements at "the earliest practical date." In addition, a temporary committee appointed by state education officials would be charged with developing interim supplemental materials for the teaching of intelligent design within two years.
Provisions of the bill would apply to both public elementary and secondary schools and to introductory science course taught at state-assisted colleges and universities.
As much as he sympathizes with fellow conservative Christians who take the Bible literally and see divine creation as a matter of science and history rather than tradition and myth, Thomson said he remains skeptical that HB 291 is a good thing for Missouri's public schools.
In addition to handing down a mandate to local districts, Thomson predicted that implementing such a law would be both problematic and expensive.
Page 2 of 2 - The bill's sponsor, Thomson's fellow Republican Rick Brattin of Harrisonville, introduced similar legislation last year that failed to make the House floor for debate. Thomson said, in his opinion, HB 291 is likely to meet the same fate.
"I just don't see something this controversial, and something that is a mandate, going though the Legislature," he said.