Legal Issues in Evolution

Photograph of John Scopes taken one month before the Tennessee v. John T. Scopes Trial. Photographed by Watson Davis. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Since the 1925 trial of John Scopes, which investigated the legality of a Tennessee law that forbade the teaching in public schools of "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible," a number of court cases have looked at laws involving the teaching of creationist ideas. Several court decisions, including the 1987 Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard and, more recently, the 2005 federal district court case (in central Pennsylvania) of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, have ruled that the various forms of creationism, including intelligent design creationism, are religion, not science, and that it is therefore unconstitutional to include them in public school science classes.

U.S. law does not forbid the mention or study of religion as an academic subject in public schools, and creationism might be discussed in, for example, a comparative religion class. But, as civil servants, public school teachers must be neutral with respect to religion, which means that they can neither promote nor inhibit its practice. If intelligent design creationism were to be discussed in public school, then Hindu, Islamic, Native American, and other non-Christian creationist views, as well as mainstream religious views that are compatible with science, also should be discussed. Because the Constitution of the United States forbids a governmental establishment of religion, it would be inappropriate to use public funds to teach the views of just one religion or one religious subgroup to all students. Moreover, even in such a class it would be improper to teach these viewpoints as though they were scientific.


Excerpts From Three of the Most Prominent Evolution Cases

Supreme Court of the United States, Epperson v. Arkansas, 1968
"Government in our democracy, state and national, must be neutral in matters of religious theory, doctrine, and practice. It may not be hostile to any religion or to the advocacy of non-religion, and it may not aid, foster, or promote one religion or religious theory against another or even against the militant opposite."

Supreme Court of the United States, Edwards v. Aguillard, 1987
"[The] primary purpose [of the Louisiana 'Creation Act,' which required the teaching of 'creation science' together with evolution in public schools] was to change the public school science curriculum to provide persuasive advantage to a particular religious doctrine that rejects the factual basis of evolution in its entirety. Thus, the Act is designed either to promote the theory of creation science that embodies a particular religious tenet or to prohibit the teaching of a scientific theory disfavored by certain religious sects. In either case, the Act violates the First Amendment."

District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 2005
"[W]e find that ID [intelligent design] is not science and cannot be adjudged a valid, accepted scientific theory, as it has failed to publish in peer-reviewed journals, engage in research and testing, and gain acceptance in the scientific community. ID, as noted, is grounded in theology, not science". Moreover, ID's backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM [intelligent design movement] is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID."

Creationism and the Law

The National Center for Science Education provides an online resource with details on seventeen key cases, from Scopes to Selman, that made a difference in the evolution vs. creationism debate. Click on the name of a case to get a thorough summary; a list of source documents (typically PDFs, arranged in chronological order); and to relevant NCSE news stories, timelines, and presentations; and a selection of links to other sources. This resource is free and aimed at journalists, lawyers, school administrators, school boards, and anyone interested in the legal history of evolution, creationism, and public school science education.

From Science, Evolution, and Creationism, National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine. © 2008 National Academy of Sciences