This Monday marks the 30th anniversary of Edwards v. Aguillard, a milestone U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming the separation of church and state in public schools. As we mark the anniversary, it’s a good time to examine the history of the efforts to undermine instruction about evolution in public schools – and understand that the threat remains with us.
Edwards is, unfortunately, but one in a long history of attempts by Religious Right zealots to use public institutions (in this case, the public school system) to further their dogmatic views.
The topic first came to prominence in the infamous 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial,” in which a substitute teacher was found guilty of teaching evolution, contrary to Tennessee law. Our side actually lost this case in the courtroom. Teacher John Scopes was found guilty (although his conviction was later overturned on a technicality). In the court of public opinion, however, the fundamentalist forces led by William Jennings Bryan ended up looking kind of silly and backward.
Although anti-evolution laws were gradually enforced with less vigor, they were again brought to national attention by Epperson v. Arkansas in 1968. In this case, the Supreme Court found that Arkansas’ ban on teaching evolution was unconstitutional under the First Amendment because it existed for the purpose of protecting a religious worldview.
Unwilling to take the decision at face value, the state of Louisiana passed a law for the “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction.” In other words, Louisiana wanted to circumvent Epperson by mandating that creationism be taught whenever evolution was taught.
Public schools should always teach sound science.
The law was quickly challenged in court, and on June 19, 1987, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that Louisiana’s law was in violation of the First Amendment because it endorsed a specific religious belief and lacked a clear secular purpose.
Since Edwards, fundamentalists have gotten creative in their push to include their religion in public schools. Creationism was replaced in fundamentalist-inspired textbooks by “intelligent design,” and overt attacks on evolutionary biology were hidden between the lines.
When a school district in Dover, Pa., mandated that “intelligent design” be taught in science classes, Americans United and its allies sued. In December of 2005, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III ruled in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District that “intelligent design” is in fact conceptually inseparable from creationism, and this tricky new move in an old game failed.
Creationism remains a threat today, mainly through state bills that would require that public schools “teach the controversy” when evolution appears in the curriculum. Of course, there is no “controversy” over evolution among mainstream scientists, but that doesn’t faze Religious Right activists.
Vouchers pose a different kind of threat. President Donald J. Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have proposed diverting millions in taxpayer money to private religious schools through vouchers. Since many religious schools are fundamentalist Christian in nature, this means that public funds will inevitably prop up institutions that teach creationism and junk science.
Americans United strongly believes that public money should fund public schools. As we commemorate the anniversary of Edwards v. Aguillard, we are reminded of the importance of supporting sound science and the public schools that teach it.