Texas Board’s Creationism Rule Found Unconstitutional

By Anne Bridgman — March 21, 1984 2 min read

Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox said last week that a State Board of Education proclamation mandating that evolution be taught as only one of several explanations of the origin of man is unconstitutional.

Mr. Mattox issued the opinion in response to a request last year by State Senator Oscar Mauzy, chairman of the Senate jurisprudence committee. The legislator asked the attorney general to decide whether the 1974 textbook proclamation violates the First and 14th Amendments by seeking to bring religion into the schools. In December, People for the American Way, a civil-liberties advocacy group, filed a companion brief. (See Education Week, Jan. 25, 1984.)

The state-board regulation on which the state’s chief law officer ruled states that if evolution is included in science textbooks used by Texas students, it must be taught as “only one of several explanations of the origins of humankind [in a manner] not detrimental to the other theories of origin.”

The board’s rule on evolution “can be explained only as a response to pressure from creationists,” Mr. Mattox said in his opinion.

“Clearly, the board made an effort, as it has stated, to ‘ensure neutrality in the treatment of subjects upon which beliefs and viewpoints differ dramatically,”’ Mr. Mattox wrote. “In our opinion, however, the board, in its desire not to offend any religious group, has injected religious considerations into an area which must be, at least in the public-school context, strictly the province of science.”

First Amendment ‘Victory’

“We feel very strongly that this is a victory for the First Amendment as well as for science education,” said Barbara Parker, director of the Freedom to Learn Project of the civil-liberties lobbying group. ''I hope this ruling will give textbook publishers some long-needed spine.” (See Commentary on page 24.)

Ms. Parker noted, however, that the ruling is just a first step. If the board fails to make changes to the textbook proclamation, she said, “we’re going to sue.”

Opinions issued by the attorney general, because they are interpretations of the law, have historically had the force of law unless they are challenged in court, according to a spokesman in the attorney general’s office.

Joe Kelley Butler, chairman of the state board, said he would abide by whatever decision the board’s lawyer rendered in the case. A decision on the ruling will not be made until the board’s April meeting, he said.

“There never was any doubt in my mind of the way [Mr. Mattox] would go because it was a political decision, and I know what his political leanings are,” Mr. Butler said of the decision.

He added that he interpreted the ruling to be nonbinding. “We don’t have to do anything,” he said when asked about the board’s plans for compliance.

The reaction of Mel Gabler, the Longview, Tex., fundamentalist Christian textbook critic, was negative. “It wasn’t very good,” he said of Mr. Mattox’s ruling.

Mr. Gabler added: “The Texas attorney general’s opinion at this time is an unfortunate, hasty overreaction to political pressure. This ruling returns us 60 years to before the Scopes trial, when only one explanation for origins could be taught. The attorney general has elevated the theory of evolution to be treated as fact in spite of great gaps, flaws, inconsistencies, and the fact that evolution is unprovable.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 1984 edition of Education Week as Texas Board’s Creationism Rule Found Unconstitutional