# NCSE violating the Constitution?

Dr. Rosenhouse pointed out an absurd article on National Review Online</a> which accuses the National Center for Science Education of “using federal tax dollars to insert religion into biology classrooms,” because it has posted a website which says, in its entirety, that <blockquote>The misconception that one has to choose between science and religion is divisive. Most Christian and Jewish 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.</blockquote>According to Prof. West, this represents an “effort to use religion to endorse evolution [a]s part of a larger public-relations strategy…to defuse skepticism of neo-Darwinism.” By which he means, it’s part of an attempt to explain to people that they really can accept the fact of evolution without abandoning their religious faith. Whether NCSE is right about that or not isn’t relevant to West’s allegation that NCSE’s use of government grants to create this website violates “Supreme Court precedents on the establishment clause of the First Amendment.” He is wrong about this.

West, who evidently is not a lawyer, does not explain just how NCSE is violating the Establishment Clause, so let’s briefly review the law. The Establishment Clause prohibits the Federal Government from, among other things, setting up a church, “pass[ing] laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another…[,] forc[ing] [ ]or influenc[ing] a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or forc[ing] him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion,” or levying a tax “large or small…to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever from they may adopt to teach or practice religion.” Everson v. Board of Ed. of Ewing Tp.,</i> 330 U.S. 1, 15-16 (1947). In Lemon v. Kurtzman,</i> 403 U.S. 602 (1971), the Court tried to devise a test for detecting when government action was a violation of the Establishment Clause. That test–in a modified form–is still controlling law; under it, the Court uses “three primary criteria…to evaluate whether government aid has the effect of advancing religion,” namely, whether it “result[s] in governmental indoctrination; define[s] its recipients by reference to religion; or create[s] an excessive entanglement’” of government and religion. Mitchell v. Helms,</i> 530 U.S. 793, 808 (2000) (plurality op.) (quoting Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203, 234 (1997)).

First, note that it is extremely difficult to see how the paragraph cited above constitutes indoctrination of any sort, or the erection of a federal church. There are cases in which government has taken a far more unequivocal position on religious issues, and conservatives such as those who write for National Review Online have rarely expressed opposition to these. See, e.g., Reynolds v. United States,</i> 98 U.S. (8 Otto) 145 (1878) (upholding federal law banning Mormon practice of polygamy). Conservatives have usually advocated far more freedom for government to directly endorse religious doctrine. It is unclear to me how the NCSE’s extremely mild wording–which seems much less of a normative assertion that religion really is compatible with evolution, than a simple observation that “many religious people” have no problem with evolution–would trouble those who believe that government ought to be able to openly endorse religious opinions. If West’s charge of hypocrisy cuts at all, it cuts both ways.

The National Science Foundation routinely gives grants even to religious institutions. The Catholic University of Notre Dame, for instance, has received almost $13 million in grants from the NSF. The Catholic University of San Diego has received almost$200,000. Even if the NCSE’s statement really were advocacy of a particular religion–which it is not–the fact that the website is funded in part by a government grant would not violate the Establishment Clause–certainly it would be no more of a violation than government funding “faith based” social programs. But the fact that the NCSE’s statement is a description rather than advocacy of a particular religious viewpoint makes this case much more like government funding a museum, or the broadcast of a “history of religion” show on PBS. Cf Donnelly, supra (display of religious material for secular purposes does not violate Establishment Clause). Nobody–and I’m sure no religious conservative–would suggest that these violate the Establishment Clause.