Oh yeah? I dare you to sue us!

A while back I posted about the school district in York, Pennyslvania, which decided to add the creationist book From Pandas To People to their classrooms. The school board chose not to require it as part of the curriculum, but did place it in classes for teachers to use, which I said was inappropriate.

It turns out the school district has decided to go farther.

The school board has chosen to add the following language to the science curriculum:<blockquote>Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s Theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of life will not be taught.</blockquote>

To me, the last sentence is the most shocking. To say that an entire area of study–something so fundamental to science–will not be taught is deeply disturbing. If school boards are determining that things are not to be taught, then it would seem they have a different idea about what the word “teacher” means than I do.

But what about the First Amendment? To begin with, I was impressed with the boldness of school district member Heather Geesey, who told the York Daily Record</a> “We are not going to be sued…. It’s not going to be a problem. I have confidence in the district’s lawyers.” Unfortunately, it’s entirely possible that she is right. People are often reluctant to, as they say, fight city hall. I hope very much that a parent concerned about the quality of education that his or her child receives will step forward to prove Ms. Geesey’s prediction wrong.

The First Amendment, as applied to the states, prohibits a public school from teaching a religious position as the truth. A government school which teaches students “intelligent design” is teaching students that God created the world and life. This is not only extraordinarily bad science, but it violates the Constitution.

In Edwards v. Aguillard,</i> 482 U.S. 578 (1987), the Supreme Court considered the Constitutionality of a Louisiana law which prohibited teachers from teaching evolution unless they provided “equal time” to creationism. The parents challenged this law as a violation of the Establishment Clause, which forbids states from “mak[ing any] law respecting an establishment of religion….” To decide whether a law constitutes an illegal establishment of religion, the Court applies a test called the Lemon test after the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman,</i> 403 U.S. 602 (1971). According to that test (which has been somewhat modified, but remains law today), government violates the Establishment Clause whenever

1) it fails to act with a secular purpose; 2) the principal or primary effect of the government’s act either advances or inhibits religion; or 3) the government’s act results in an excessive entanglement of government with religion.

If any of these three things happens, then the government has violated the Establishment Clause. In Aguillard, the Court found that the goal of the Louisiana “equal time” law<blockquote>was a product of the upsurge of fundamentalist religious fervor that has long viewed this particular scientific theory as contradicting the literal interpretation of the Bible…. [T]he motivation for the…law was the same [as other anti-evolution statutes]: to suppress the teaching of a theory which, it was thought, “denied” the divine creation of man….. [T]here can be no legitimate state interest in protecting particular religions from scientific views distasteful to them…and…the First Amendment does not permit the State to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma…. The preeminent purpose of the Louisiana Legislature was clearly to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind.</blockquote>

Aguillard, 482 U.S. at 590-91 (quotation marks and citations omitted).

Because the Louisiana law tried to put the state’s seal of approval on “the religious belief that a supernatural creator was responsible for the creation of humankind,” id.</i> at 592, the Court found that the law did not have a legitimate secular purpose: “the purpose of the Creationism Act was to restructure the science curriculum to conform with a particular religious viewpoint.” Id.</i> at 593. Thus the law failed the Lemon test, which meant it was an establishment of religion, and therefore a violation of the First Amendment.

Now, defenders of “intelligent design” try hard to portray it as different than creationism. “We aren’t insisting on creationism,” they might say in defending the Pennsylvania act. “We’re just saying that students should be taught more information about evolution–information we consider favorable to our case.” But interestingly, the Aguillard decision did touch a little on this argument: “the Act’s primary purpose was to change the science curriculum of public schools in order to provide persuasive advantage to a particular religious doctrine that rejects the factual basis of evolution in its entirety,” the Court said. Id.</i> at 592. Intelligent design proponents might say, “Yes, and we do not reject it in its entirety, so Aguillard doesn’t apply to us.” But, said the Court,<blockquote>The sponsor of the Creationism Act…repeatedly stated that scientific evidence supporting his religious views should be included in the public school curriculum to redress the fact that the theory of evolution incidentally coincided with what he characterized as religious beliefs antithetical to his own. The legislation therefore sought to alter the science curriculum to reflect endorsement of a religious view that is antagonistic to the theory of evolution.</blockquote>

Id. at 593 (emphasis added).

Nor is the Establishment Clause violated only by actually teaching students that a religious-origin story is true. In Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Bd. of Educ., 975 F.Supp. 819 (E.D. La. 1997), aff’d 185 F.3d 337 (5th Cir. 1999), cert. denied, 530 U.S. 1251 (2000), the Federal District Court held that a school district violated the Establishment Clause by requiring teachers to read a disclaimer to students before teaching the evolution. Applying the Lemon test, the court concluded<blockquote>it is patent that…[the] School Board…believed that teaching the theory of evolution is antithetical to the religious belief in the creation of life by a Divine Creator, that the [disclaimer] was introduced to satisfy similar religious concerns of majority of the constituency…. As hard as it tries to, this Court cannot glean any secular purpose to this disclaimer. While the School Board intelligently suggests that the purpose of the disclaimer is to urge students to exercise their critical thinking skills, there can be little doubt that students already had that right and are so urged in every class…. A review of the all of the evidence presented leaves little doubt that the reasons for the adoption of the resolution were religious.</blockquote>

Id. at 829.

The York decision to “ma[ke students] aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s Theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design,” is obviously religiously motivated. Worse, it is simply a direct affront to the well-established First Amendment law in this country–law which has been clear at least for thirty years, from the highest court in the land. It is a brazen violation of the law by government officials who think they will get away with it because “We are not going to be sued…. It’s not going to be a problem.” Perhaps we have some Pennsylvania readers who would beg to differ.

More at the National Center for Science Education, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State (somewhat outdated).