In the United States, creationists and proponents of evolution are engaged in a long-standing battle over the legal status of creation and evolution in the public school science classroom.
1.1 Early law
Until the late 19th century, creation was taught in nearly all schools in the United States, often from the position that the literal interpretation of the Bible is inerrant. With the widespread acceptance of the theory of evolution in the 1860s and developments in other fields such as geology and astronomy, public schools began to teach science that was reconciled with Christianity by most people, but considered by a number of early fundamentalists to be directly at odds with the Bible.
After War I, the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy brought a surge of opposition to the idea of evolution, and following the campaigning of William Jennings Bryan several states introduced legislation prohibiting the teaching of evolution. By 1925, such legislation was being considered in 15 states, and passed in some states, such as Tennessee. The American Civil Liberties Union offered to defend anyone who wanted to bring a test case against one of these laws. John T. Scopes accepted, and he taught his Tennessee class evolution in defiance of the Butler Act. The textbook in question was Hunter’s Civic Biology (1914).
The trial was widely publicized, by H. L. Mencken among others, and is commonly referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial. Scopes was convicted. On Appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the decision on a technicality (the judge had assessed the fine when the jury had been required to). Although it overturned the conviction, the Court decided that the law was not in violation of the First Amendment.
The interpretation of the Establishment clause up to that time was that Congress could not establish a particular religion as the State religion. Consequently, the Court held that the ban on the teaching of evolution did not violate the Establishment clause, because it did not establish one religion as the “State religion.” As a result of the holding, the teaching of evolution remained illegal in Tennessee, and continued campaigning succeeded in removing evolution from school textbooks throughout the United States.
1.2 Modern Legal Cases
The Supreme Court of the United States has made several rulings regarding evolution in public education. In 1967, the Tennessee public schools were threatened with another lawsuit over the Butler Act’s constitutionality, and, fearing public reprisal, Tennessee’s legislature repealed the Butler Act. In the following year, 1968, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas that Arkansas’s law prohibiting the teaching of evolution was in violation of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court held that the Establishment Clause prohibits the state from advancing any religion, and determined that the Arkansas law which allowed the teaching of creation while disallowing the teaching of evolution advanced a religion, and was therefore in violation of the 1st amendment Establishment clause.
In reaction to the Epperson case, creationists in Louisiana passed a law requiring that public schools should give “equal time” to “alternative theories” of origin. The Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard that the Louisiana statute, which required creation to be taught alongside evolution every time evolution was taught, was unconstitutional.
The Court held that the law was not adopted with a secular purpose, because its purported purpose of “protecting academic freedom” was not furthered by limiting the freedom of teachers to teach what they thought appropriate; ruled that the act was discriminatory because it provided certain resources and guarantees to “creation scientists” which were not provided to those who taught evolution; and ruled that the law was intended to advance a particular religion because several state senators that had supported the bill stated that their support for the bill stemmed from their religious beliefs.
While the Court held that creationism is an inherently religious belief, it did not hold that every mention of creationism in a public school is unconstitutional. Just as it is permissible to discuss the crucial role of religion in medieval European history, creationism may be discussed in civics, current affairs, philosophy, or comparative religions class. The line is crossed only when creationism is taught as science, just as it would be if a teacher were to proselytize a particular religious belief.
1.3 Movements to Teach Creationism in Schools
There continue to be numerous efforts to introduce creationism in US classrooms. One strategy is to declare that evolution is a religion, and therefore it should not be taught in the classroom either or that if evolution is a religion, then surely creationism as well can be taught in the classroom.
In the 1980s Phillip E. Johnson wrote “Darwin on Trial”, which examined the evidence for evolution from religious point of view and challenged the assumption that the only reasonable explanation for the origin of species must be a naturalistic one. This book and his subsequent efforts to encourage and coordinate creationists with more credentials was the start of the “Intelligent design” movement. Intelligent design asserts that there is evidence that life was created by an “Intelligent Designer” (mainly that the physical properties of an object are so complex that they must have been “designed”). Proponents claim that ID takes “all available facts” into account rather than just those available through naturalism. Opponents assert that ID is a pseudoscience because its claims cannot be tested by experiment and do not propose any new hypotheses.
Many proponents of the ID movement support requiring that it be taught in the public schools. While many proponents of ID believe that it should be taught in schools, other creationists believe that legislation is not appropriate. Opponents point out that there is no scientific controversy, but only a political and religious one, therefore “teaching the controversy” would only be appropriate in a social studies, religion, or philosophy class. Many, such as Richard Dawkins, compare teaching Intelligent Design in schools to teaching flat earthism, since the scientific consensus regarding these issues is identical.
1.4 Recent Developments in State Education Programs
In 1996, the Alabama State Board of Education adopted a textbook sticker that was a disclaimer about evolution. It has since been revised and moderated.
In August 2008 Judge Otero ruled in favour of University of California in “Association of Christian Schools International v. Roman Stearns” agreeing with the university’s position that various religious books on U.S. history and science, from A Beka Books and Bob Jones University Press, should not be used for a college-preparatory classes. The case was filed in spring 2006 by Association of Christian Schools International against the University of California claiming religious discrimination over the rejection of five courses as college preparatory instruction On August 8, 2008, Judge Otero entered summary judgment against plaintiff ACSI, upholding the University of California’s standards. The university found the books “didn’t encourage critical thinking skills and failed to cover ‘major topics, themes and components'” and were thus, ill-suited to prepared students for college.
On August 11, 1999, by a 6–4 vote the Kansas State Board of Education changed their science education standards to remove any mention of “biological macroevolution, the age of the Earth, or the origin and early development of the Universe. It was left to the 305 local school districts in Kansas whether or not to teach evolution. This decision was hailed by creationists, and sparked a state-wide and nationwide controversy with scientists condemning the change. Challengers in the state’s Republican primary who made opposition to the anti-evolution standards their focus were voted in on August 1, 2000. On February 14, 2001, the Board voted 7–3 to reinstate the teaching of biological evolution and the origin of the earth into the state’s science education standards.
In 2004 Kansas Board of Education elections gave religious conservatives a majority and they organised the Kansas evolution hearings. On August 9, 2005, the Kansas State Board of Education drafted new “science standards that require critical analysis of evolution –including scientific evidence refuting the theory,” which opponents analyzed as effectively stating that Intelligent Design should be taught. The new standards also provide a definition of science that does not preclude supernatural explanations, and were approved by a 6-4 vote on November 8, 2005.
In Kansas’ state Republican primary elections on August 1, 2006, moderate Republicans took control away from the anti-evolution conservatives, leading to an expectation that science standards which effectively embraced Intelligent Design and cast doubt on Darwinian evolution would now be changed. On February 13, 2007, the Kansas State Board of Education approved a new curriculum which removed any reference to Intelligent Design as part of science.
In October 1999, the Kentucky Department of Education replaced the word “evolution” with “change over time” in state school standards.
In 2002, proponents of Intelligent Design asked the Ohio Board of Education to adopt Intelligent Design as part of its standard biology curriculum, in line with the guidelines of the Edwards v. Aguillard holding. In December 2002, the Board adopted a proposal that permitted, but did not require, the teaching of Intelligent Design.
In 2002, six parents in Cobb County, Georgia, in the case “Selman v. Cobb County School District” sued to have the following sticker removed from public school textbooks: “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.” Defence attorney Gunn said, “The only thing the school board did is acknowledge there is a potential conflict between evolution and creationism and there is a potential infringement on people’s beliefs if you present it in a dogmatic way. We’re going to do it in a respectful way.” Jefferey Selman, who brought the lawsuit, claims “It singles out evolution from all the scientific theories out there. Why single out evolution? It has to be coming from a religious basis, and that violates the separation of church and state.”
On January 14, 2005, a federal judge in Atlanta ruled that the stickers should be removed as they violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The school board subsequently decided to appeal the decision. In comments on December 15, 2005, the appeal court panel appeared critical of the lower court ruling and a judge indicated that he did not understand the difference between evolution and abiogenesis.
On December 20, 2006, the Cobb County Board of Education abandoned all of its legal activities and will no longer mandate that biology texts contain a sticker stating “evolution is a theory, not a fact.” Their decision was a result of compromise negotiated with a group of parents, represented by the ACLU, that were opposed to the sticker. The parents agreed, as their part of the compromise, to withdraw their legal actions against the board.
In 2004 the Dover, Pennsylvania School Board voted that a statement must be read to students of 9th grade biology mentioning Intelligent Design. This resulted in a firestorm of criticism from scientists and science teachers and caused a group of parents to begin legal proceedings (sometimes referred to as the Dover panda trial) to challenge the decision, based on their interpretation of the Aguillard precedent. On November 8, 2005, the members of the school board in Dover were voted out and replaced by evolutionary theory supporters. On December 20, 2005 federal Judge John E. Jones III ruled that the Dover School Board had violated the Constitution when they set their policy on teaching Intelligent Design, and stated that “In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.”
Despite proponents urging that Intelligent Design should be included in the school system’s science curriculum the school board of Chesterfield County Public Schools in Virginia decided on May 23, 2007, to approve science textbooks for middle and high schools which do not include the idea of Intelligent Design. During the week before the meeting, one of the Intelligent Design proponents claimed that “Students are being excluded from scientific debate. It’s time to bring this debate into the classroom”, and presented “A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism”.
On November 7, 2007 the Texas Education Agency director of science curriculum Christine Comer was forced to resign over an e-mail she had sent announcing a talk given by an anti-Intelligent Design author. In a memo obtained under the Texas Freedom of Information act, TEA officials wrote “Ms. Comer’s e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker’s position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral.” In response over 100 biology professors from Texas universities signed a letter to the state education commissioner denouncing the requirement to be neutral on the subject of Intelligent Design.
On February 19, 2008, the Florida State Board of Education adopted new science standards in a 4-3 vote. The new science curriculum standards explicitly require the teaching of the “scientific theory of evolution”, whereas the previous standards only referenced evolution using the words “change over time.”
1.5 Recent polls
In 2000, a People for the American Way poll among Americans found that:
• 29% believe public schools should teach evolution in science class but can discuss creationism there as a belief;
• 20% believe public schools should teach evolution only;
• 17% believe public schools should teach evolution in science class and religious theories elsewhere;
• 16% believe public schools should teach creation only;
• 13% believe public schools should teach both evolution and creationism in science class;
• 4% believe public schools should teach both but are not sure how.
(1% had no opinion)
In 2006, a poll taken over the telephone by Zogby International commissioned by the Discovery Institute found that more than three to one of voters surveyed chose the option that biology teachers should teach Darwin’s theory of evolution, but also “the scientific evidence against it”. In contrast, one in five (21%) chose the other option given, that biology teachers should teach only Darwin’s theory of evolution and the scientific evidence that supports it. One in ten was not sure. The poll’s results are often regarded as worthless however, because the wording of the poll question implies that significant “scientific evidence” against evolution actually exists to be taught -a proposition with which less than 0.15% of scientists with relevant expertise would agree.
Over the past few years, there have been several attempts to undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools. Tactics include claims that evolution is “merely a theory” that does not even have widespread acceptance amongst scientists (which is completely untrue); promoting the teaching of alternative pseudosciences such as Intelligent Design; and completely ignoring evolution in biology classes.
In general, these controversies, at the local school district level, have resulted in Federal and State court actions (usually by parents who are opposed to teaching of religion in school). There has been a number of consequences of these activities:
• The teaching of religious doctrines, such as Creation Science and Intelligent Design, relies upon an understanding of, and belief in the supernatural. This is in direct opposition to the principle that science can only use natural, reproducible, testable forces to explain phenomena.
• The costs to school districts to defend their actions in imposing religious teaching over the science of evolution are high, diverting funds that the districts could use for the education of their students.
• The lack of proper science education will have a long-term effect of eroding the technological leadership of the US.
• Most biology and medical research institutions assume a well-grounded undergraduate education in biology, which includes the study of evolution. Since modern medical research has focused on the cellular and biochemical levels, the knowledge that all of these processes have evolved from a common ancestor and the processes are remarkably similar between diverse species will be critical in designing experiments to test novel treatments for disease.