WICHITA - Kansas has approved moves to allow the teaching of "intelligent design" alongside evolution, days after President George W. Bush said there should be a "debate" about the origin of life in schools.
After months of wrangling, the Education Board agreed to new state science standards that weaken the role evolution plays in science class.
The 10-member board voted 6-4 in favour of the new directions but must still take a final vote, expected in either September or October.
The decision essentially cemented a victory for conservative Christian board members, who say Darwinian theory is largely unproven and can undermine religious teachings.
"We think this is a great development ... for the academic freedom of students," said John West, senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, which supports "intelligent design".
The belief - a form of creationism - disputes the scientific theory that natural selection can explain the complexity of life.
Last week, Bush said intelligent design should be taught in schools alongside evolutionary theory.
If the education board wins final approval, Kansas will join Minnesota, Ohio and New Mexico in adopting similar rulings on the teaching of the origin of life.
The new science standards would not eliminate the teaching of evolution entirely but it would encourage teachers to discuss various viewpoints and eliminate core evolution theory as required curriculum.
Critics say the moves are part of a continuing national effort by conservative Christians to push their religious views into the public education process.
"This is neo-creationism, trying to avoid the legal morass of trying to teach creationism overtly and slip it in through the backdoor," said the director of the National Centre for Science Education, Eugenie Scott.
The move comes after a high-level row began in the Catholic Church over whether Darwinism was compatible with the Christian faith.
Leading cardinal Christoph Shonborn, a close associate of Pope Benedict XVI, said in the New York Times that the "unguided, unplanned process of natural selection" could not be correct.
Shonborn is understood to have been helped by the Discovery Institute to get his article published.
The Vatican's astronomer Father George Coyne, attacked the article in the British Catholic weekly the Tablet, saying Shonborn had "darkened the waters" of the rapport between church and science.
Kansas itself has been grappling with the issue for years, garnering worldwide attention in 1999 when the state school board voted to de-emphasise evolution in science class.
That was reversed in 2001 with new members elected to the school board. But conservatives again gained the majority in elections in 2004, leading to the latest change.
The standards the board is revising act as guidelines for teachers on how and what to teach students.
In May, the board sponsored a courtroom-style debate over evolution that saw lawyers for each side taking up issues such as the age of the Earth, fossils and beliefs that humans and are too intricately designed to not have a creator.
The hearings came 80 years after the famous "Scopes" trial in Tennessee in which teacher John Thomas Scopes was accused of violating a state ban against teaching evolution.
Scopes ultimately won the trial, dubbed "a fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war", and dealt a heavy blow to creationists. However, it was not until the 1960s that creationism disappeared from public school curriculums.