Caldwell Asks Supreme Court to Take Frivolous Website Case

| 23 Comments

Our friend Law-Suit Larry has filed a petition for certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court, asking that Court to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision in his lawsuit against the U.C. Berkeley Understanding Evolution website. (We’ve blogged about this case in the past.) He was assisted in this work by the Pacific Justice Institute, an organization that focuses largely on cases relating to religion issues. Caldwell is representing his wife as the petitioner, but the respondent coincidentally is also named Caldwell, meaning that the case is Caldwell v. Caldwell, with Caldwell as one of the lawyers, and they’re all different people.

I’ve read the petition (which is not online), and it’s an interesting piece of work. It urges the court to take the case on the grounds that the theory of “standing” needs to be clarified in the context of web pages. (Non-lawyers for whom these terms are confusing should start by reading this)

According to the petitioners, the Ninth Circuit screwed up when it declared that Mrs. Caldwell lacked standing to challenge the constitutionality of the evolution website’s receipt of federal funding through the National Science Foundation. That Ninth Circuit decision (which you can read here) held that Mrs. Caldwell lacked standing because her complaint was more like a generalized, abstract grievance than a genuine personal injury due to allegedly unconstitutional conduct. Thus there was “too slight a connection” between conduct she claims is unconstitutional and any potential injury to her.

The petitioners argue that the Ninth Circuit’s focus on (a) the “permanence” of the website and (b) the “attenuated connection” between Mrs. Caldwell and the website was in error. After all, they point out, the website was around for at least three years when the lawsuit was filed, and that seems pretty permanent. On the other hand, if “permanent” means “unchanging,” then websites would always be immune from constitutional scrutiny since they could be changed at any time. Nor, they continue, should courts consider the nature of the connection between a litigant and the allegedly unconstitutional website by considering the motives for visiting the website. To do so would require of courts the “inherently arbitrary” task of weighing the importance of a person’s motives when, say, accessing a government-funded website, or going to a government-owned park, or what have you.

These are plausible arguments, and in fact they identify some genuine problems with the standing theory adopted by the Ninth Circuit in this case. Yet the fatal flaw in the case lies in the assumption that the petition makes while carefully glossing over the essential issue: namely, the petition claims that the Understanding Evolution website makes a government-endorsed statement on a religious issue. In fact, it does not.

The website makes purely factual claims that Mrs. Caldwell, for religious reasons, happens to find offensive. That is crucially different from a government statement on the truth or falsehood of a religious matter. The government is allowed to make factual, objectively truthful statements about any number of things, including characterizations of the religious beliefs of individuals or groups, even if readers like Mrs. Caldwell might find those statements to be offensive for whatever reasons–including religious reasons. The government may say “Muslims believe that there is only one god and that Mohammed is his prophet,” even if you or I find such a statement to be offensive. One may dislike that tax dollars are being used to support the publication of that statement–but it is not a violation of the First Amendment, which only prohibits the government from taking a position, not from describing the positions taken by others.

The Understanding Evolution website says–truthfully–that

Religion and science (evolution) are very different things. In science, only natural causes are used to explain natural phenomena, while religion deals with beliefs that are beyond the natural world.

The misconception that one always has to choose between science and religion is incorrect. Of course, some religious beliefs explicitly contradict science (e.g., the belief that the world and all life on it was created in six literal days); however, most religious groups have no conflict with the theory of evolution or other scientific findings. In fact, many religious people, including theologians, feel that a deeper understanding of nature actually enriches their faith. Moreover, in the scientific community there are thousands of scientists who are devoutly religious and also accept evolution.

These are not religious statements, but statements about religious beliefs, and government is allowed to make statements about religious beliefs. In fact, government can make statements about religious beliefs that are false! It is just not allowed to say that a religious belief is itself false. Statements characterizing religion, or describing the beliefs of others, do not depend for their truthfulness on the content of a religious dogma or creed, and are therefore secular in nature; they are statements that the government is constitutionally free to make under the First Amendment. They are not religious statements.

Government may convey messages about religion; that’s why public libraries may stock the Bible on their shelves, or fund museums about religious movements or pay for the restoration of historic churches. Government buildings may even host Yuletide crèches and menorahs–so long as it is clear from the context that the state is not endorsing these views. It does not violate the First Amendment for the government to convey messages about religion, so long as it does not make statements within religion.

But the petition scrambles to dodge this central issue. “[Mrs.] Caldwell submits that her contact with an unwanted religious message on the government-owned and authored Understanding Evolution website is equivalent to a citizen’s contact with an unwanted religious message such as a Latin cross on government-owned land,” the petition says on page 19. That equivalence is non-existent, since the website does not convey a “religious message,” but a message about religion, which is not the same thing. And again, on page 20: “she is unable unreservedly to use Understanding Evolution without encountering the unwanted religious message.”

Since this “religious message” in reality consists of Mrs. Caldwell’s personal (religious) discomfort over a truthful statement of an objective, non-religious fact about religion, imagine what it would mean if her argument were to prevail! It would give members of any religious group a heckler’s veto over any government-associated presentation of factual matters about competing religious views. The Mormon Church could shut down the recent PBS special on The Mormons. The National Trust for Historic Preservation would not be allowed to fund the restoration of historic churches like the St. James AME Church in New Orleans. Indeed, the argument would have some ironic consequences: government-funded schools would have to eliminate all education on the history of religion, of religious controversies or movements or conflicts.… That is, schools would have to eliminate the only classes where Intelligent Design creationism may appropriately be taught: in classes that teach about the content of religious viewpoints. After all, some students might be able to unreservedly use the facilities of the school without encountering an “unwanted religious message”–i.e., a characterization of the religious beliefs that some people hold, and at which students might individually be offended because of their own religious beliefs.

By skimming over the central issue in the entire case, the Caldwell petition seems to present a couple interesting arguments. But they are a façade for a baseless lawsuit that was properly dismissed. As the Ninth Circuit concluded in its decision, “people inside and outside the academy may (and do) take different views in the ongoing debate over whether science and religion may coexist, [but Mrs.] Caldwell’s offense is no more than an ‘abstract objection’ to how the University’s website presents the subject.” Caldwell v. Caldwell, 545 F.3d 1126, 1133 (9th Cir. 2008).

23 Comments

Points for LSL reference! ;-)

The Caldwells sound extreme even by Darwin-basher standards. It’s not a question of the rights or wrongs of what they’re doing, it’s a question of the Wile E. Coyote energy they are investing in an effort grounded in a feeble pretext and doomed to failure. “Don’t ya’ll have something to do with your time that might actually profit you in some way?

I get the perception that they believe they are cleverly trying to turn the Exclusion Clause around to their advantage, and haven’t realized yet that it works far more against them than for them.

Cheers – MrG / http://www.vectorsite.net

I wonder whether this clear distinction between within as opposed to about religion might not have some gray area. Yes, the government saying there is only one god wouldn’t be legal, and the government saying some folks think there’s only one god is legal. Is it legal to say that those who think there’s only one true god suffer the side-effects of religion-induced childhood abuse? If scientific evidence could be marshalled supporting this claim, would that alter its status? Or would this be a case where the statement is legal even if it proves to be wrong?

Religious faith quite evidently alters behaviors, not always in positive ways. How far can the government go in saying creationism damages both those who believe it, and those the believers inflict it on, before they’re (almost, but not quite?) saying creationism is wrong?

One really has to wonder where the Caldwells get the money and resources to do this. And if you are going to the higher courts in the land, you would think a really competent lawyer would help. I’m pretty sure lawyers, especially the competent ones, prefer to get paid (of course the incompetent ones believe they are competent also, so they would most certainly want to be paid).

Do we have here another classic case of people with more money than brains? I swear there appears to be an inverse correlation between wealth and intelligence. Banal deviousness seems to be all that is necessary.

Mike Elzinga said:

Do we have here another classic case of people with more money than brains? I swear there appears to be an inverse correlation between wealth and intelligence. Banal deviousness seems to be all that is necessary.

It’s a combination of fear and ignorance among rich and influential religious fundamentalists: they fear losing their power in the wake of people abandoning religion, and in their ignorance, they equate evolution with atheism. Thus, they are happy to pour money and misinformation into what they see as a struggle for self-preservation. Look at Howard Ahmanson, Jr. and Walt Ruloff. What really kills me is the thought of how much good they could do for society with those wasted millions.

Timothy Sandefur Wrote:

Since this “religious message” in reality consists of Mrs. Caldwell’s personal (religious) discomfort over a truthful statement of an objective, non-religious fact about religion, imagine what it would mean if her argument were to prevail!

I have to admit that there are some levels of stupidity that I just don’t have a low enough gear to comprehend.

I think that most people would find the Caldwells and their “religion” so offensive that, according to their own “logic”, the rest of us could have their activities and propaganda banned the minute the US Supreme Court agreed with them.

James F Wrote:

Look at Howard Ahmanson, Jr. and Walt Ruloff. What really kills me is the thought of how much good they could do for society with those wasted millions.

Exactly another case of this screwed-up mentality.

Mind-blowing!

I’m reminded of a suit from ten or more years ago in which the Church of Scientology sued a non-profit group that battled destructive religious cults. The non-profit group lost and, lacking the assets to resolve the judgment, became the property of the Scientologists who then continued to operate it as a mouthpiece for their organization.

The question in this case being a constitutional one rather than a tort issue, I see it turning out much better.

I am reminded of Galileo:

“Yet for all of me any discussion of the sacred Scripture might have lain dormant forever; no astronomer or scientist who remained within proper bounds has ever got into such things. Yet while I follow the teachings of a book accepted by the church, there come out against me philosophers quite ignorant of such teachings who tell me that they contain propositions contrary to the faith. So far as possible, I should like to show them that they are mistaken, but my mouth is stopped and I am ordered not to go into the Scriptures. This amounts to saying that Copernicus’s book, accepted by the church, contains heresies and may be preached against by anyone who pleases, while it is forbidden for anyone to get into the controversy and show that is is not contrary to Scripture.” Letter to Piero Dini, May, 1615, in: Opere volume xii, 183-185 as translated in

“Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo” Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Stillman Drake Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957 pages 165-166

An extremely interesting piece.

Although I’m not a lawyer, it seems pretty clear that this is a very frivolous lawsuit. The apparent obsessive, hyper-insecure, and authoritarian mindset of the plaintiffs is what is interesting.

Flint said -

Yes, the government saying there is only one god wouldn’t be legal, and the government saying some folks think there’s only one god is legal. Is it legal to say that those who think there’s only one true god suffer the side-effects of religion-induced childhood abuse?

I’m not sure what is meant by “side effects of religion-induced child abuse”, but an obvious point is that, if following some particular religion were causally associated with some negative outcome that could be objectively measured, the government describing that would probably be legal, but that would be a far more difficult, or at least controversial, case, than the one described here.

Here, there is no such issue. Nothing in the web site quote of interest says that the religious people who believe that the earth was created in “six literal days” are correct or incorrect at a philosophical level, or that they suffer some disadvantage.

The quote of interest merely makes the bland and obvious points that some religious people accept mainstream science, and some scientists practice a religion.

Standing issues can be complicated, and many seem to think that the US standards of who has standing should be made more broad although probably not as broad as some other countries (in Israel for example pretty much everyone has standing to sue for pretty much anything). The 9th Circuit has a history of taking very broad views of who has standing. So if they don’t think the Caldwell’s have standing, I don’t think it is going to be likely that the Supreme Court will be inclined to spend much time thinking about the matter.

mrg (iml8) said:

I get the perception that they believe they are cleverly trying to turn the Exclusion Clause around to their advantage, and haven’t realized yet that it works far more against them than for them.

Sounds similar to an attempt by Georgia’s Representative Ben Bridges to try and exclude the teaching of evolution in public schools because it is a religious doctrine: http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/ar[…]s/012504.php

Thankfully the Georgia House convenes today without Mr. Bridges in attendance as he mercifully did not run for re-election in 2008.

The apparent obsessive, hyper-insecure, and authoritarian mindset of the plaintiffs is what is interesting.

Sadly, “wingnut” is deeply ingrained in our programming.

http://gocomics.com/nonsequitur/2009/01/11/

Um, for some reason, the blockquote around

“The apparent obsessive, hyper-insecure, and authoritarian mindset of the plaintiffs is what is interesting.”

got lost during submission.

Sorry Harold, I wasn’t trying to plagiarize you.

Don’t worry Stevaroni -

First of all, I wouldn’t suspect you of if.

I was also going to say that plagiarizing from a source that’s clearly visible right above the plagiarism would be too absurd to be suspected. But actually, now that I think about it, I’ll bet some creationist has done that :-).

Mark Farmer said:

Sounds similar to an attempt by Georgia’s Representative Ben Bridges to try and exclude the teaching of evolution in public schools because it is a religious doctrine …

(Rolls eyes.) Geez, the Federal courts shot down the “evolutionism is religion” ploy in 1994, will these folks never learn? Of course it is preferable that they don’t.

Cheers – MrG / http://www.vectorsite.net/tadarwinw.html

mrg (iml8) said:

Mark Farmer said:

Sounds similar to an attempt by Georgia’s Representative Ben Bridges to try and exclude the teaching of evolution in public schools because it is a religious doctrine …

(Rolls eyes.) Geez, the Federal courts shot down the “evolutionism is religion” ploy in 1994, will these folks never learn? Of course it is preferable that they don’t.

It’s preferable they never breed.

The ones that learn cease being Creationists; that’s why we don’t see people still in that group that have learned. ;)

Henry

Unfortunately, defectors seem unusual. Denis Lamoureux is one of the more interesting examples. Wish there were more like him.

Cheers – MrG / http://www.vectorsite.net/tadarwinw.html

mrg (iml8) said:

Unfortunately, defectors seem unusual. Denis Lamoureux is one of the more interesting examples. Wish there were more like him.

Cheers – MrG / http://www.vectorsite.net/tadarwinw.html

Glenn Morton, too, not to mention our own PvM, if memory serves. Stephen Godfrey’s personal journey was also featured recently in Science.

Yeah, Morton’s cool – he’s actually quite the witty writer. I hunted up a picture of him one time, he looks like the pleasant, good-natured Christian gentleman he reads like he is. Lamoureux seems cut from the same mold. Lamoureux got a degree in biology just to disprove Darwin, and came to the conclusion: “Oh dear, this is right!” So he’s been working on an evangelical theology consistent with Darwin.

I will confess myself to being suspicious of theology – I was educated by Jesuits and believe me it was an education – but Lamoureux has taken on and debated Phil Johnson. Johnson tends to look peevish to begin with, and I can just imagine the expression on his face during the debates.

Cheers – MrG / http://www.vectorsite.net

Thomas said:

I’m reminded of a suit from ten or more years ago in which the Church of Scientology sued a non-profit group that battled destructive religious cults. The non-profit group lost and, lacking the assets to resolve the judgement, became the property of the Scientologists who then continued to operate it as a mouthpiece for their organization.

Not exactly the way of it. CAN (Cult Awareness Network) never lost a case against Scientology. What happened was that over the period of a few weeks CAN received dozens of applications from Scientologists attempting to join their organisation. Many of these applications were identically worded and some even had the source materials and instructions for how to file the application. CAN, quite rightly, ignored such frivolous applicaions (as an aside one such application was filed by a one Lisa McPherson).

The long and the short of it was that these unsuccessful applicants all sued CAN for religious discrimination. While every suit that reached judgement was in CAN’s favour, they nevertheless simply ran out of money (there were dozens of individual lawsuits involved) and were subsequently bought by Scientology in bankruptcy court.

The above is extremely depressing because even though the law agreed with CAN’s position, they were still vulnerable to this type of bully litigation.

Religion and science (evolution) are very different things. In science, only natural causes are used to explain natural phenomena, while religion deals with beliefs that are beyond the natural world.

The misconception that one always has to choose between science and religion is incorrect. Of course, some religious beliefs explicitly contradict science (e.g., the belief that the world and all life on it was created in six literal days); however, most religious groups have no conflict with the theory of evolution or other scientific findings. In fact, many religious people, including theologians, feel that a deeper understanding of nature actually enriches their faith. Moreover, in the scientific community there are thousands of scientists who are devoutly religious and also accept evolution.

These are not religious statements, but statements about religious beliefs, and government is allowed to make statements about religious beliefs.

No, I think your position here is wrong. The page in controversy contains a combination of religious statements and statements about religious belief; and it plainly takes a side in the religious controversy.

The first two statements in the quote plainly state a position about what religion is vis-a-vis science. The third one is pretty starkly religious; whether one always needs to choose between science or religion is a religious question, and labeling the affirmative answer as a “misconception” is taking a side on a religious question. A non-religious take on these would simply point out that religions disagree on the relationship between science and religion in general, and often more pointedly so when it comes to evolution.

The rest of the quote is framed as statements about religious beliefs, but even there, it is quite clear that the page is taking a side in a religious issue. What is the point of saying that most religious groups have no conflict with evolution? What is the point of emphasizing the beliefs of religious people who think understanding evolution enriches their faith? Why is the viewpoint of such people highlighted, while the viewpoint of those who don’t agree is excluded?

I think all of that is inexcusable. The material in that page could easily be written in a much more neutral manner with regard to the religious issues, simply by saying that religious people have a wide variety of beliefs, and that it’s not the business of science to sort them out. (And note that that has the effect of not giving the creationists an audience!)

Breaking News!

The Supreme Court just denied cert to Caldwell. The lawsuit is officially dead.

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This page contains a single entry by Timothy Sandefur published on January 10, 2009 12:37 AM.

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