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Evolution and creationism

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Description: Modern scientific theories of natural and human origins and religious beliefs about the world's creation.


Significance: The battle between the teaching of evolution versus creationism entered the public schools and arrived before the Supreme Court, which found that the establishment clause forbids public schools from lending their authority to advance creationism.


The emergence of the theory of evolution as a scientific account of human origins has, since the nineteenth century, created conflicts with religious beliefs. Conservative Christians, in particular, have often viewed evolution as inconsistent with biblical teaching concerning creation. They viewed the gradual nature of the evolutionary process as contradicted by the biblical account of creation. They read the Bible as describing a relatively brief creation process in some views, six literal days and one not characterized by a progression from primitive to higher lifeforms.


Early Attempts to Ban the Teaching of Evolution

The debate between science and religion over natural origins inevitably arrived in the public schools. In areas controlled by conservative religious sensibilities, opponents of evolution were able, for a time, to prevent public school teachers from teaching the evolutionary account. As the twentieth century progressed, these prohibitions eventually took the form of law. The most celebrated attempt to enforce such a legal prohibition against teaching evolution was the Scopes trial in Tennessee in the 1920's. State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (1925), which eventually came to be known as the “Monkey Trial,” involved the criminal prosecution of a Tennessee schoolteacher for teaching evolution in violation of a state law prohibiting such teaching. For eight scorching days in July of 1925, the trial pitted William Jennings Bryan as a special prosecutor for the state of Tennessee against Clarence Darrow as attorney for the defendant. Bryan secured a conviction in the case, and the presiding judge imposed a $100 fine on Scopes. However, in the court of public opinion, Bryan faired more poorly. During the trial, he agreed to be cross-examined by Darrow and, at least in the minds of many observers, allowed Darrow to tar him and other evolution opponents as unsophisticated religious fundamentalists. On appeal, the Tennessee appellate court affirmed the constitutionality of the Tennessee antievolution statute but held that a jury rather than a judge should have assessed the fine in the case. The state of Tennessee, its law thus vindicated, declined to prosecute the case again, and so Scopes and others who wished to take their challenge to the Supreme Court were frustrated. Several decades would pass before the Court finally considered the constitutionality of laws prohibiting instruction concerning evolution. When it did, in Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), the Court found a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution to be a violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause. During the 1960's, the Court had begun to examine the influence of religion in the public schools, declaring unconstitutional school-sponsored prayers in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963). With these precedents in mind, the Court concluded that attempts to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools amounted to an impermissible intrusion of religion on the public school curriculum.


Creation Science and the Public School Curriculum

The battle that began as an attempt to keep evolution out of public schools metamorphosed over the next two decades into a rear-guard attempt to return creationism to the schools. In the early 1980's, for example, the Louisiana legislature passed the Balanced Treatment for CreationScience and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act. This law essentially provided that public schools that chose to teach “evolutionscience” also had to teach “creation-science” and was justified by the legislature as necessary to preserve academic freedom. The Supreme Court disagreed, however. By the time the matter arrived before the justices in the last half of the 1980's, the Court had interpreted the First Amendment's establishment clause as imposing a three-part requirement on state and federal laws. According to the three-part test adopted in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), laws had to have a secular purpose, a secular effect, and entail no excessive entanglement between government and religion. The Louisiana law was challenged in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), and a majority of the Court agreed that the law offended the establishment clause. According to the Court, the Louisiana statute stumbled over the first prong of the three-part Lemon test. In spite of the Louisiana legislature's assertion that the act was necessary to preserve academic freedom, a majority of the Court concluded that the act was, in fact, supported by an essentially religious purpose that of restoring the religion-rooted view of natural origins represented by “creation-science” to the public school classroom. Finding that the law lacked any real secular purpose, therefore, the Court concluded that it violated the establishment clause.



Further Reading

  • Conkle, Daniel O. Constitutional Law: The Religion Clauses. New York: Foundation Press, 2003.
  • Ecker, Ronald L. Dictionary of Science and Creationism. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990.
  • Gilkey, Langdon. Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998.
  • Hall, Kermit L. Conscience and Belief: The Supreme Court and Religion. New York: Garland, 2000.
  • Jurinski, James John. Religion on Trial: A Handbook with Cases, Laws, and Documents. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  • Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
  • Larson, Edward J. Trial and Error: The American Legal Controversy over Creation and Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
  • Webb, George Ernest. The Evolution Controversy in America. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.