Federal Court Rejects Teacher’s Claim Of Right To Teach Theory ofCreation

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong — November 21, 1990 4 min read

Teachers enjoy no constitutional right to ignore school directives in order to present creationism in the classroom, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the court this month affirmed a May 1989 decision by the U.S. District Court for Northern Illinois in Webster v. New Lenox School District.

“The First Amendment is not a teacher license for uncontrolled expression at variance with established curricular content,” said the appellate court, in an opinion written by Judge Kenneth F. Ripple.

Lawyers on both sides of the dispute say the decision marks the first time a federal appeals court has ruled on whether a teacher can present creationism in class after being ordered not to do so.

If, as expected, the case is appealed, it eventually could provide the U.S. Supreme Court with another chance to ponder the inherent tension between the First Amendment’s ban on establishment of religion and its protection of free speech--in this instance wrapped in the mantle of academic freedom.

The case concerns Ray Webster, a social-studies teacher at Oster-Oakview Junior High School in New Lenox, Ill. Mr. Webster began to introduce tenets of so-called “creation science” into his class along with traditional textbook material on evolution.

Because of complaints about Mr. Webster’s practice, the New Lenox superintendent, Alex M. Martino, in fall 1987 sent him a letter saying he was “not to teach creationist science as the federal courts have held that this is religious advocacy.”

“You may discuss the historical relationship between the church and state,” Mr. Martino continued, “but only in a purely objective manner without advocacy of a Christian viewpoint and only if such discussion is an appropriate part of the standard curriculum.”

Mr. Webster sought court relief, claiming that the superintendent was violating his First and 14th Amendment rights, but the district court dismissed his complaint.

Judge Ripple wrote that Mr. Webster, “in effect, argues that the school board must permit him to teach what he pleases.”

“Given the school board’s important pedagogical interest in establishing the curriculum and legitimate concern with possible Establishment Clause violations,the school board’s prohibition on the teaching of creation science to junior-high students was appropriate,” the appellate court stated.

It said the school board “successfully navigated the narrow channel between impairing intellectual inquiry and propagating a religious creed.”

In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that creation science “embodies the religious belief that a supernatural creator was responsible for the creation of humankind” and that a Louisiana decree that it be taught in public schools along with evolution violated the Constitution. (See Education Week, June 24, 1987.)

Charles E. Hervas, Mr. Webster’s lawyer, said his client probably will appeal the decision.

“While a lot of people will see this as an issue of creation science and religion in the classroom,” it really involves restraint of free speech, Mr. Hervas said.

“We’re having censorship. [Mr. Webster] is required to teach evolution” but is prevented from broaching an alternative theory, the lawyer said.

“Requiring him to say one thing and disallowing him to say another thing, I think, is censorship,” he asserted. “We’ve come full circle’’ from the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial,” when a teacher was forbidden to teach the theory of evolution, he said.

Now, the scientific and educational community “finds creation science to be unacceptable, and they’ve barred that from the classroom,” Mr. Hervas said.

He said the very fact that some people accept creationism spurred Mr. Webster to inform his class of it. “As long as it’s done in a fair and open-minded fashion, I don’t see why it should be illegal or unconstitutional,” Mr. Hervas said.

Richard R. Winter, lawyer for the school district, agreed that First Amendment issues are at stake in the case.

“It’s really a First Amendment issue from the teacher’s perspective,” he said. “It’s a First Amendent right of a teacher versus a school district’s right to control the curriculum and its obligation to protect the First Amendment rights of students” to be free from establishment of religion, he added.

In his opinion in May 1989, District Judge George M. Marovich wrote that under the Constitution, the state “cannot enact a statute which would violate the Establishment Clause and New Lenox cannot enact a curriculum which would inject religion into the public-school setting.”

Therefore, he determined, “if a teacher in a public school uses religion and teaches religious beliefs or espouses theories clearly based on religious underpinnings, the principles of the separation of church and state are violated as clearly as if a statute ordered the teacher to teach religious theories.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 21, 1990 edition of Education Week as Federal Court Rejects Teacher’s Claim Of Right To Teach Theory ofCreation