Science and religious faith need not be seen as mutually exclusive, but public schools are currently at the center of a struggle between groups that seem to feel that they are. Religious groups hold strong feelings about certain scientific concepts and have fought to try to eliminate or alter curriculums that include them. Educators and scientists have opposed religious groups' attempts to adjust or eliminate curriculums they find offensive, citing the constitutional separation of church and state.
At present, the fight centers around evolutionary theory, generally supported by scientists and educators, which states that life developed through a series of natural phenomenon resulting in adaptive change over time. Religious groups opposing evolution promote creation science or intelligent design, the theory that life developed with the assistance of an intelligent, effectively divine, creator or designer.
The modern line of cases on this topic begins with the 1968 Supreme Court case of Epperson v. Arkansas. The state had introduced a law that forbade the teaching of evolution in public schools. Epperson was a public school teacher who sued, stating that the law forbidding the teaching of evolution was a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech. The court agreed with Epperson and also found that the portion of the law permitting the teaching of creationism violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process protections, which prevent the state from advancing or promoting a religion.
Requiring Equal Study of Creationism
A district court in the 1982 case McLean v. Arkansas frequently cited Epperson in its decision. Educators and parents had sued because of a law that required public schools to provide equal time to creation-science and evolution-science studies. The plaintiff's prevailed in overturning the law as an unconstitutional violation of Free Speech, Due Process, and Equal Protection guarantees of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
The decision speaks at length about the motivations of the law's proponents and, at the time of the decision, it was unclear whether a law prepared less explicitly for the purpose of introducing religious teachings into the classroom would pass constitutional muster. Cases such as 1987's Edwards v. Aguillard, in which the Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law requiring biology teacher to teach 'creation science' alongside evolution, continued to find such requirements unconstitutional and frequently analyzed the purpose of the laws at issue.
Intelligent Design as Science
Some groups began to advance the notion of intelligent-design as a scientific theory. Evolution, they argue, is itself only a theory. Intelligent-design proponents support their theory that life developed through the intervention of an intelligent designer. Through examples of "irreducible complexity" in nature. These developments, they claim, are unexplainable without the assistance of a larger consciousness. However, opponents argue that intelligent-design is not science, since it is not based upon discovering natural causes through observation and testing. They also contend that the emphasis on evolution's classification as a theory is misleading; they argue that evolutionary theory is termed a theory not because many doubt its correctness, but because of more technical reasons relating to scientific standards of proof.
The federal courts first addressed intelligent design in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District in 2005. A local school board in Dover, Pennsylvania voted to require teachers to read a statement about intelligent design prior to discussions of evolution in high school biology classes. The judge found that the practice violated the Establishment clause, concluding that intelligent design is not a science because it fails to seek a natural cause for observed phenomenon, among other reasons.
Limited Creationist Successes
While the Alabama Board of Education has approved the teaching of evolution starting in 2016, the board currently includes a disclaimer sticker on science textbooks that states that evolution is an unproven theory. The sticker is the subject of a referendum scheduled for 2016. Georgia's textbooks included a similar disclaimer sticker that was challenged in Selman v. Cobb County School District. After some losses under the Establishment Clause, the board decided to drop the it, though it isn't clear that the practice is necessarily unconstitutional.
Indeed, not all attempts to influence how evolution is taught have failed. Alabama, Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas all require in their science standards that students "critically analyze key aspects of evolutionary theory." In addition, Louisiana and Mississippi have legislation allowing teachers and students to discuss scientific evidence critical of evolution.
Speaking with a Lawyer
Litigation on this issue continues at every level. Whatever your position on the issue, an experienced education attorney can help advise you about your rights.
Contact a qualified education attorney to help you navigate education rights and laws.