Education

Creationism Law in La. Is Rejected By Supreme Court

By Tom Mirga — June 24, 1987 3 min read
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“The court has headed off a significant threat to the religious neutrality of the public schools,’' he added.

A Louisiana law mandating balanced treatment for the theories of evolution and creation in public schools violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on government establishment of religion, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week.

In a 7-to-2 decision, the Court held that the state legislature’s primary intent in enacting the law in 1981 “was clearly to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind,’' and not to advance the cause of academic freedom, as the state maintained.

“The legislative history documents that the act’s primary purpose was to change the science curriculum of public schools in order to provide an advantage to a particular religious doctrine that rejects the factual basis of evolution in its entirety,’' Associate Justice William J. Brennan wrote for the majority in Edwards v. Aguilard (Case No. 85-1513). “Out of many possible science subjects taught in the public schools, the legislature chose to affect the teaching of the one scientific theory that historically has been opposed by certain religious sects.’'

In a harshly worded dissent, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, said he found “no justification’’ for the majority’s ruling.

“We have ... no adequate basis for disbelieving the secular purpose [of advancing academic freedom] set forth in the act itself, or for concluding that it is a sham enacted to conceal the legislators’ violation of their oaths of office,’' Justice Scalia wrote. “I am astonished by the Court’s unprecedented readiness to reach such a conclusion, which I can only attribute to an intellectual predisposition created by the facts and the legend of’’ the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial,’' in which a Tennessee judge upheld a state law banning the teaching of the theory of evolution.

‘Balanced Treatment’

Unlike the law at issue in the Scopes case, the 1981 Louisiana act does not proscribe the teaching of evolution. Instead, it mandates that schools give balanced treatment to what it describes as “creation science’’ and “evolution science.’'

A group of teachers and parents of schoolchildren filed suit in federal district court seeking to have the law struck down. They argued that the measure failed all three parts of the legal test set by the High Court in 1971 for determining whether laws or other governmental actions violate the First Amendment’s ban on state establishment of religion.

Under the test, such action is permissible if it has a secular legislative purpose, if its primary effect is one that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and if it does not foster excessive state entanglement with religion.

A U.S. district judge declared the law unconstitutional in January 1985.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the district court’s decision in July 1985. The case was then heard by all 15 judges on the appellate panel. The full panel ruled 8 to 7 to uphold the decision.

Justice Brennan’s Ruling

In upholding the appeals court’s judgment, Justice Brennan noted that the Court “need not be blind ... [to] the historic and contemporaneous link between the teachings of certain religious denominations and the teaching of evolution.’' These same antagonisms, he continued, “are present in this case.’'

“The term ‘creation science’ was defined as embracing this particular religious doctrine by those responsible’’ for the law’s passage, Justice Brennan wrote. “Because the primary purpose of [the law] is to advance a particular religious belief, [it] endorses religion in violation of the First Amendment.’'

Groups’ Reactions

“The Court very clearly said you can’t force schools to teach a religious doctrine,’' said Joseph L. Conn, spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “It’s a very important decision, because, had they voted the other way, you would have seen similar bills introduced in at least a dozen states.’'

“The court has headed off a significant threat to the religious neutrality of the public schools,’' he added.

“Those who will suffer from today’s Supreme Court decision striking down Louisiana’s balanced-treatment act are the students of Louisiana’s public schools,’' said Beverly LaHaye, founder and president of Concerned Women for America, a national organization that filed a brief with the Court supporting the Louisiana law.

“Evolution is not a proven scientific fact—it is a theory,’' Ms. LaHaye said. “Creationism is also a scientific theory. As long as there is not conclusive proof, children should be taught all theories.’'

A version of this article appeared in the August 04, 1987 edition of Education Week as Creationism Law in La. Is Rejected By Supreme Court


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