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School board’s evolution disclaimer fails to get Supreme Court review

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Decrying that the Supreme Court has allowed a federal appeals court to further promote “the secular legend” of the Scopes Monkey Trial, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia criticized the high court’s June 19 rejection of an appeal by a Louisiana school board over its policy requiring teachers to read a disclaimer before teaching evolution to their students.

By a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court decided not to review the appeal by the Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education concerning its 1994 policy requiring public school teachers to tell their students the lesson on the “scientific theory of evolution … was not intended to influence or dissuade the Biblical version of creation.” Several parents of children in the school district sued, arguing that the disclaimer violated the so-called “wall of separation” between church and state.

A federal judge struck down the policy, a ruling that was subsequently upheld by a U.S. appeals court. The federal judge said the disclaimer was unconstitutional because it had a religious purpose. But the U.S. appeals court struck it down for a different reason, declaring that it had the effect of promoting religion. In its most recent ruling on evolution in the schools, the Supreme Court in 1987 struck down a Louisiana law requiring equal treatment to creationism and evolution.

The six Supreme Court justices who rejected the Tangipahoa appeal June 19 did so without comment. Their action was not precedent-setting and was only a denial of review. Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Clarence Thomas and Scalia dissented, with Scalia offering scathing criticism of the court’s decision.

“At the outset, it is worth noting that the theory of evolution is the only theory actually taught in the Tangipahoa Parish schools,” Scalia wrote in his dissent.

He then referred to the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 in Dayton, Tenn., when biology teacher John Scopes was convicted and fined $100 for teaching evolution after Tennessee law made it a crime to teach anything but the biblical version of creation.

“Today we permit a court of appeals to push the much beloved secular legend of the Monkey Trial one step further,” Scalia wrote.

“We stand by in silence while a deeply divided [appeals court] bars school districts from even suggesting to students that other theories besides evolution — including, but not limited to, the Biblical theory of creation — are worthy of their consideration,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, a Southern Baptist scholar commended Scalia, Rehnquist and Thomas for their dissent and warned that such flawed thinking on the part of the majority of the justices threatens academic freedom in America’s classrooms.

“Since when does it become the jurisdiction of the courts, even under the rubric of ‘constitutionality’ so-called, to rule on the very idea of ‘ideas’ or to pass judgment on the numerous extant ideas and theories already linked inseparably to the origins of the humankind question — or the universe for that matter?” asked Hal Ostrander, associate dean and associate professor of Christian theology at Boyce College of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky.

“With respect to the logical cogency or empirical verification of knowledge per se or various creation theories under continuous development, such an enterprise should come under the jurisdiction of the academy, a constitutionally protected institution, as opposed to a legal system sworn to serve its citizens in matters needing to be steered better toward jurisprudence proper,” Ostrander continued. “Ideas matter. Creation ideas matter, too, and as the three dissenting judges phrased it, such ideas and theories are worthy of consideration. If they aren’t allowed bona fide consideration within the academy, just where will folks be allowed to gather to consider them?”

Ostrander said another flaw in the court’s thinking is the “unwarranted assumption” that young earth creationism is the only creation view to which biblicists hold.

“This is simply not the case, and for the powers-that-be to say that all origins theories should be categorized along these lines is a serious intellectual mistake,” he said.

The Supreme Court did not rule out the possibility of a school board requiring some type of disclaimer stating that evolution is not the only accepted view of the origin of life. However, it ruled that the Tangipahoa disclaimer “under the facts and circumstances of this case … is not sufficiently neutral” to be constitutionally permissible.

The Tangipahoa disclaimer also said: “It is the basic right and privilege of each student to form his-her own opinion or maintain beliefs taught by parents on this very important matter. … Students are urged to exercise critical thinking and gather all information possible and closely examine each alternative toward forming an opinion.”

Lawyers representing the Tangipahoa appeal maintained, “the mere mention of the biblical version of creation by way of illustration does not present a significant risk of perceived endorsement of Bible-based religion.”

Lawyers opposing the disclaimer disagreed. “By disclaiming only evolution — the one element of the school curriculum that generates religious controversy — the school board has violated both the constitutional mandate of neutrality toward religion and its obligation to provide its students with secular educations free from religious indoctrination or partisanship.”

They also showed that the disclaimer was drafted right after the school board voted 5-4 to reject a proposal to teach creationism in the district’s schools.

    About the Author

  • Don Hinkle