BY MEGAN ELIZABETH SULLIVAN ’19
Does creationism—aka the notion that life is the product of the divine rather than evolution—belong in the classroom? New England Law | Boston student Megan Elizabeth Sullivan argues it does not in the award-winning article below.
The third-year student recently won the National Law Review Law School Writing Contest with her article "'Alternative Facts' in the Classroom: Creationist Educational Policy and the Trump Administration." She joins past winners from Boston College Law School, Harvard Law School, Northeastern Law School, and New York University School of Law, among others.
You can read an excerpt from her essay below. Head over to the National Law Review website for the full article, including citations.
Despite a lengthy history of being struck down in court, bills permitting the teaching of “creation science” in public schools continue to appear in state legislatures across the country. In the first month of 2019 alone, five states introduced creationist bills. These states are not alone. Within the past few years, a number of state legislatures have introduced bills permitting schools to “teach the controversy” between the theories of evolution and creationism. Somehow, an issue that the Supreme Court of the United States resolved three decades ago is still very much alive and contentious today.
The persistence of these creationist bills has taken on a new fervor with the apparent endorsement of creationist beliefs from the Trump Administration. This Administration, from its inception, has adopted a notoriously anti-science stance with regard to issues ranging from climate change to vaccinations. Unsurprisingly, many members of the Administration are disinclined to profess a belief in evolution as well. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Vice President Mike Pence have publicly announced their belief that schools should “teach the controversy,” and President Trump has taken a neutral stance on the issue. Two states already allow creationism and the theory of evolution to be taught side-by-side, and more such legislation is being pushed forth. As of yet, none of these proposed bills have passed, but the margins by which such legislation is failing are narrower than they have been in years. These bills present a genuine danger, not only of violating the constitutionally mandated separation between Church and State, but also of contributing to the already confusing atmosphere that religion has created in science education in the United States.
Creationism and the First Amendment
The U.S. Supreme Court, as well as a number of state courts, have weighed in on the issue of teaching creation science in public schools. Virtually without exception, these courts have held that requiring instruction on creationism is a clear violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the enactment of any law respecting an establishment of religion. In Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Supreme Court developed the three-pronged Lemon Test to determine whether legislation violates the Establishment Clause: “First, the legislature must have adopted the law with a secular purpose. Second, the statute’s principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion. Third, the statute must not result in an excessive entanglement of government with religion.” Failure to satisfy any of these prongs renders a statute unconstitutional.
Edwards v. Aguillard
In 1982, Louisiana introduced the “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution Science in Public School Instruction” Act (Creationism Act), which prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools unless creationism was also taught. Neither was required to be taught, but per the statute, if one was taught, the other was also required to be taught. A group of parents of children in the Louisiana public school system, as well as local teachers and religious leaders, brought suit challenging the Creationism Act’s constitutionality and seeking injunctive and declaratory relief. In defense, the respondents claimed that the Act’s purpose was the protection of the “legitimate secular interest” of academic freedom. The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari and agreed with the petitioners.
The appellant-respondents could not identify a clear secular purpose for the Creationism Act. The Act did not further the teaching of “all of the evidence” on the origin of humanity, since the Act explicitly banned teaching only one origin theory (evolution), and only required the teaching of two theories (evolution and Christian creation), without permitting any additional theories to be introduced. If “academic freedom” was truly the Legislature’s purpose, it would have encouraged teaching many theories on the origins of humanity, but “under the Act’s requirements, teachers who were once free to teach any and all facets of this subject [were] now unable to do so. Moreover, the Act fail[ed] even to ensure that creation science [would] be taught, but instead require[ed] the teaching of this theory only when the theory of evolution [was] taught.”
The Court found that the Legislature’s purpose, rather than to advance academic freedom, was to promote a primarily religious objective. Therefore, the Supreme Court held that the Creationism Act “advance[ed] a religious doctrine by requiring either the banishment of the theory of evolution from public school classrooms or the presentation of a religious viewpoint that rejects evolution in its entirety,” and “violat[ed] the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it seeks to employ the symbolic and financial support of the government to achieve a religious purpose.”
Per the U.S. Supreme Court, requiring public schools to give “balanced treatment” to the theories of evolution and creation science is unconstitutional, as is a complete ban on teaching evolution. In addition to the Supreme Court, a number of state courts have also weighed in on the issue, and have likewise found that the regulations are incapable of passing the Lemon Test and are therefore unconstitutional. Despite this, anti-evolution legislation continues to be introduced by state legislatures even to this day.
Continue reading on the National Law Review website.