Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

When Evolution and Creationism Are on the American Docket, the Verdict Winds Up Far from Unanimous

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

When Evolution and Creationism Are on the American Docket, the Verdict Winds Up Far from Unanimous

Article excerpt

The appropriateness of the subjects in the classroom has fueled an ongoing legal battle in our country for generations

The American dilemma over church-state issues and the more specific quandary over the role of evolution in public education are reflected in the crucible of the courts.

The story starts with the legal equivalent of the Bible: the Constitution. The first of the constitutional commandments, or the First of the Amendments, is the mandate that the government not establish a national religion and yet not infringe on either the free exercise of religion or freedom of expression. These First Amendment directives - the Establishment Clause, the Free Exercise Clause, and Freedom of Expression - initially applied to the federal government and, after the Fourteenth Amendment,. to state governments and, thereby, the public schools.

The subsequent chapters of the story moved from 1) a famous Tennessee trial court that put the general issue on the map; to 2) a pair of successive U.S. Supreme Court decisions specific to the role of evolution in public schools; to 3) the culminating application of these constitutional precedents in a series of recent lower court decisions.

During the 90 or so years from the opening chapter to the latest developments, various other related Supreme Court precedents also marked the transforming application of the three pertinent parts of the Constitution. For example, a long but fluctuating line of Supreme Court decisions continued to redefine the height of the metaphorical "wall of separation" between church and state that some use to symbolize the Establishment Clause.

Since its crystallization in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971)', the primary but not exclusive set of legal criteria that the courts have used in Establishment Clause cases has been the "tripartite test," which examines, in flowchart-like fashion:

1) Whether the purpose of the challenged governmental policy or practice is secular

2) If so, whether its primary effect is religious

3) And if not, whether it represents excessive entanglement between church and state

In recent years, the second criterion has predominated in terms of whether the challenged government action appears to a reasonable observer to be governmental endorsement of religion; the first criterion has proven to be relatively easy to hurdle; and the third has largely withered away.

The well-known beginnings: the Scopes trial from the 1920s

The first chapter was at the lowest legal level and not based on the Constitution, but it marked-the first major judicial recognition of the conflict between the secular scientific view represented by evolution and the equally entrenched religious view opposed to teaching evolution in the public schools.

As recited and analyzed in a multiplicity of other sources in the literature,2 this case arose when high school science teacher and football coach John Scopes taught evolution in his biology class despite the prohibition in Tennessee's "Monkey Law."

In a well-publicized trial in 1926 pitting Clarence Darrow (representing the defense) against William Jennings Bryant (representing the prosecution), the jury convicted the 24-year-old Scopes of violating this criminal law, and the judge fined him $100.

The publicity did not accompany the decision, on appeal, a year later. The state's highest court rejected Darrow 's challenges based on the state's constitution but reversed Scopes' conviction on the grounds that the jury, not the judge, should have assessed the fine of $100; however, since Scopes was no longer in the state's employ,3 the court's remedy was limited to nullifying his prosecution, reasoning that there was "nothing to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case.'4

Supreme Court cases that eventually followed

The next chapter of the story didn't arise until four decades afterwards; it consists of two Supreme Court decisions, the first in 1968 and the next not until 19 years later, concerning the constitutionality of two successive state laws that addressed the subject of evolution in the public schools. …

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