THE DECISION by the Kansas Board of Education to strike any reference to evolution from the state's science curriculum is a shrewd attack on the place of evolutionary theory in the classroom. The Supreme Court long since has rejected both the required teaching of creationism as science in public schools and outright bans on teaching evolution. The Kansas proposal, however, does not quite do either. It merely fails to include evolutionary theory in statewide science standards or testing -- despite its prominent place in contemporary biology. While this creates a real disincentive for local school boards and individual teachers to spend much time on the subject, it may dodge the constitutional problems that have doomed other efforts to expel Charles Darwin from public schools.

Yet the move is still deeply uncomfortable both in terms of First Amendment values and in terms of students being educated in the actual state of biological science. Though couched as criticism of the scientific inadequacy of evolutionary theory, the revisions clearly serve a religious purpose: to discourage the teaching of a subject that some groups find antithetical to their core theological beliefs.

The changes, what's more, are not merely a state action intended to benefit religion at the expense of secularism. They benefit, in addition, a particular strain of Biblical literalism at the expense of all other religion. Many religious people, after all, do not see evolution as presenting an irreconcilable conflict with faith. Pope John Paul II, to cite only one example, has insisted that religious truths must coexist with, not deny, the reality of evolution.

And evolution, it must be stressed, is a reality -- no matter how inconvenient that fact may be. This is not to say that there is no significant debate over its mode and character. There is, in fact, a rich and wonderful one. But to deny or play down the centrality of evolution to any serious study of life sciences does a disservice to students who someday may be expected to know something about natural history or to participate in that debate.

That evolutionary biology offends some people's religious conscience puts a burden on educators to be sensitive when teaching the subject. That sensitivity can take many forms. But it should not mean legitimizing fictitious doubts about scientifically accepted theories or promoting, however indirectly, one group's set of religious concerns to students in general.

Ultimately, how people square their religious convictions with developments in science -- many of which are profoundly challenging to aspects of faith -- is a matter for churches. It is impossible for policymakers to perform this task in their place -- as the Kansas Board of Education seeks to do -- without both burdening the rights of others and lowering educational standards.