Evolution vs. Creation
This article discusses the legal issues surrounding the teaching of creationism and evolution in public school science classrooms in the United States. Since the early 20th century, parents, teachers, and politicians have often been embroiled in contentious debates regarding freedom of religion as applied to the role of religious interpretations of science in the public school science curriculum. Religious fundamentalists view evolution as both unscientific and amoral and advocate its replacement with a faith-based account of the origin of man. Others accept that evolution is fundamental to science and therefore important for students to study. The courts have consistently ruled that creationism and, later, Intelligent Design are not science and therefore do not belong in the public school science classroom.
Keywords Creationism; Darwinism; Evolution; Intelligent Design (ID); Freedom of Religion; Religious Fundamentalists; Scopes Trial; Separation of Church & State
Encompassing science, religion, philosophy, and especially politics, the debate between creationism and evolution in the United States has been anything but boring. The legal controversy has spilled over into America's public school science classrooms a number of times-first in the Scopes Trial of 1925 to Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005) and ongoing debate among the members of the Texas Board of Education about the inclusion of both debate of evolutionary theories and information regarding Intelligent Design.
The traditional battle lines in the creation/evolution debate have been clear enough. On one side are creationists, those who believe that God created the entire universe less than 10,000 years ago. On the other side are evolutionists, many of them professional scientists, who believe that the universe has unfolded over billions of years through an unguided, natural process, called evolution. Evolutionists in America are often known as Darwinists, after the British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882), who proposed in The Origin of Species (1859) that all life on earth evolved through evolution by natural selection-an unguided process that "selects" as the fittest those individuals that leave the most offspring.
Most would agree that the real sparks fly when the contemporary creation/evolution debate in the United States moves into the realm of biology, particularly the area of human origins. Creationists, who interpret the Bible's book of Genesis literally, believe that human beings are the special, divine creation of an almighty God, and therefore fundamentally distinct from all other creatures on earth. Evolutionists believe that humans are big-brained mammals who not only share a common ancestor with chimpanzees, but are related organically to all other life forms on the planet.
In the early 1990s, a group of creationists who supported the scientifically determined age of the universe diverged from traditional creationism and founded a movement called Intelligent Design (ID). Supporters of Intelligent Design have been less dogmatic than old-line creationists about the nature of the Designer, but they agree with creationists that human beings are not the end product of a solely naturalistic process of evolution.
The debate between creation and evolution takes place within a fiercely religious cultural context. The United States has always been a religious nation. Polls consistently indicate that over 90 percent of the American people believe in God, including a 2011 Gallup poll in which 92 percent answered yes to the question “Do you believe in God?” (Newport, 2011). Church attendance in America is high compared to other industrialized nations. Though America does not have an established church, there is a widespread belief that the preservation of religion-in whatever form it takes-is essential to the continued health of the country.
From the founding of the United States through the nineteenth century, most education was provided by parents and churches. Beginning with the Puritans, many Americans accepted the statement in the Old Testament that parents were to be the primary educators of their children. The idea was that parents would instill the moral and ethical values necessary for the happiness of the individual and the health of the nation. However, with the industrial revolution of the 19th century requiring more men and women to join the workforce, the education of Americans was increasingly left to public schools and state boards of education.
However, this did not imply that parents and pastors wanted their children to be taught in an amoral environment. For example, in early twentieth-century Tennessee-which would take center stage in America's first major nationwide creation/evolution debate-the influential evangelical Christian churches grew increasingly supportive of public schools because they viewed them as a bulwark against creeping secularism (Israel, 2004).
In practice, however, the symbiotic relationship between parents, churches, and public schools was more an ideal than reality. First, the long-established doctrine of the separation of church and state, which was implicit in the First Amendment and then articulated by Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, required that public schools not become proxy churches. Impartiality was the intent, and teaching any one religiously based viewpoint was suspect, if not unconstitutional. Second, even though a viewpoint was held by a majority of parents and pastors did not necessarily mean that it represented a scholarly consensus on the topic. While some parents and pastors were college-educated, many were not, and those who did attend school often had little more than a few years of formal schooling. Along these same lines, there was a growing sentiment among American intellectuals that majority rule was a clear and present danger to the civil liberties of those with minority political and religious viewpoints. In the view of many educated Americans, these minorities should enjoy full and equal protection under the law (Larson, 1997).
Given these factors, perhaps it was not very surprising that in some regions of the country, particularly in the South and the Midwest, the educational authorities ran afoul of public opinion. With tension growing between majority rule and individual rights, the teaching of evolution became a flash point. Beginning in the early twentieth century, there were numerous attempts made by anti-evolutionists (later known as creationists) to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools. Under pressure from these constituents, state legislatures in 15 states were considering bans on the teaching of evolution by 1925.
Some creationists opposed evolution on scientific grounds, charging that it was more theory than fact, while others insisted that evolution-often called Darwinism-undermined the authority of the Bible, thus putting the nation's moral health in peril. For this latter group it was time to get back to religious fundamentals, and an influential book series by that title ("The Fundamentals," 1910-1915) gave the world a new term: fundamentalism. In addition to Roman Catholicism, socialism, and higher biblical criticism, the authors of "The Fundamentals" included Darwinism as a menace to all that was good and holy (Numbers, 2006).
This anti-Darwinian sentiment was made even stronger by the events of World War I. Americans struggled to make sense of the fact that Germany, the most scientifically and intellectually advanced nation in the world, could draw the world into a global conflict. The answer given in popular books such as Vernon Kellogg's "Headquarters Nights" (1917) and Benjamin Kidd's "Science of Power" (1918) was that German militarism was directly linked to the German leadership's support of Darwinism. For many religious Americans who had lost sons and fathers on the killing fields of Europe, this was proof enough that the scourge of Darwinism must not be exported to the United States.
Prominent Court Cases
Soon the battle over creationism and evolution in the public schools became a subject for litigation. In 1925, the state legislature in Tennessee passed the Butler Act, a law banning the teaching of evolution in the state's public schools. The pertinent section of the Act forbid the teaching of "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals."
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which had been founded in 1920 to defend the civil rights of minorities, took up the case of Dayton, Tennessee, football coach John T. Scopes, who was charged with violating the Butler Act by teaching Darwinism on the day he was a substitute high school biology teacher. The ACLU recruited famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow to defend Scopes and challenge the law. Darrow was opposed in the courtroom by three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, a well-known orator who supported the right of the majority to mandate what public schools taught. Bryan had pushed for the passage of the Butler Act because he believed that Darwinism led to immorality by sanctioning the domination of the strong over the weak (Larson, 1997).
Scopes v. Tennessee-or the "Scopes Monkey Trial," as it has become known to history-was an instant media sensation. Broadcast live to the nation on radio, the trial brought to the surface many of the central themes of American democracy-majority rule, minority rights, separation of church and state, and concern for the moral fiber of the nation. In the end, Scopes was found guilty of violating the Butler Act, a misdemeanor, and was fined $100. The Butler Act was not repealed until 1967, but Scopes was hired again the next year.
In the 1930s the creationists shifted their focus from state education boards and had substantial success in influencing local school boards to either ban or water down the teaching of evolution in various school districts. Public school teachers who taught evolution ran the risk of breaking the law and losing their jobs. The problem of intellectual freedom became more and more acute, and for about forty years many Southern states banned the teaching of evolution.
After World War II, the legal winds began to shift. First, in 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Everson v. Board of Education that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, through the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, applied to states as well as the federal government. One implication of this decision was that the federal government now had legal jurisdiction in creation/evolution cases. Second, in 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren as the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, thereby ushering in an era of federal judicial activism in which many of the provisions of the Bill of Rights were applied to the states.
The only substantial creation/evolution case decided by the Warren court was Epperson v. Arkansas in 1968. At issue was the constitutionality of a 1928 law passed by the Arkansas legislature to ban the teaching of evolution in the state's public schools. Little Rock high school teacher Susan Epperson asked the state courts for a ruling on the legality of the law, and the case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Speaking for the majority of the court, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas ruled, "The...
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