NCSE files amicus brief on the history of evolution "warning labels"

Regular patrons of The Thumb will be familiar with the case Selman v. Cobb County School District (see previous PT posts, e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). This was the case that tested the constitutionality of school-district mandated evolution “warning labels” in biology textbooks. In January 2005 Judge Clarence Cooper of the Northern District of Georgia ruled that these warning labels were unconstitutional because they had an impermissable religious effect, violating the Lemon test.

In May 2005 the disclaimers were finally removed from Cobb textbooks, but the Cobb County School Board has appealed the decision to the Eleventh Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. Today, the National Center for Science Education and People for the American Way filed an amicus brief explaining the history of creationist attempts to place “warning labels” about evolution in kids’ textbooks. See the NCSE Press Release. The history of creationist attempts to infere with the teaching of evolution, via “warning labels” and other methods, seems to have been an important consideration in Cooper’s trial court decision, and so will likely be important at the appeals court level as well.

NCSE has set up a special webpage on Selman. NCSE’s amicus brief is not alone: so far, we know of seven other amicus briefs that are supporting Judge Cooper’s decision. The briefs come from diverse perspectives, including scientists, science teachers, civil liberties, religious groups, grassroots groups opposed to creationism, etc. PDFs of the briefs are being uploaded to NCSE’s Selman page as they are sent to NCSE. See the NCSE press release and the NCSE Selman FAQ for more information, and spread the word.

Press releases from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Jewish Committee came out today; many more press releases will probably come out on Monday. These amicus briefs will likely be blogged in more detail in the future, since several PT posters were participants, so stay tuned.

Following is a brief assessment of how the antievolutionist briefs stack up against the briefs supporting accurate evolution education.

Back in April, five groups of creationists filed amicus briefs in support of overturning Judge Cooper’s ruling. Although I am a long ways from being a legal scholar, these briefs sport some pretty peculiar features:

  • The brief by the states of Alabama and Texas crowned its argument by quoting Scalia’s dissent in Edwards v. Aguillard – in other words, by quoting the argument that the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court did not find convincing.
  • The brief by the Discovery Institute Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture starts off with a long table of authorities, containing references to the works of many prominent scientists that disagree vehemently with the Discovery Institute’s position and the Discovery Institute’s abuse of their work. The DI brief is signed by a list of 48 scientists, only 8 of whom are listed as biologists – and many of those are well-known explicit creationists, and/or chemists with a little bit of “bio” mixed in. (And, none of the 48 scientists is named “Steve.”)
  • Finally, a brief by Hindu creationists (with the help of ID fan Edward Sisson) cites the pseudoscience of Forbidden Archaeology as if it were something other than crank science, and reaches a soaring conclusion when it cites the Supreme Court of India, as if a U.S. federal court would give a rip about the opinions of the Supreme Court of India.

In comparison to the Discovery Institute’s forty-eight (48) scientist signatories, the Science Organizations Amicus Brief is signed by fifty-six (56) science organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In comparison to the eight (8) biologists who signed the DI brief, the Science Organizations Amicus Brief is signed by about twenty-one (21) biology organizations. Altogether, hundreds of thousands of scientists are represented by this collection of organizations.

While the Cobb County evolution warning sticker is supported by a motley collection of creationists and antievolutionists, Cooper’s ruling against the sticker is supported by organizations from a wide array of perspectives: scientific, educational, civil rights, religious, and local:

Amicus briefs urge appeals court to uphold lower court decision that disclaimer is unconstitutional

  1. Brief of National Center for Science Education and PFAW

  2. Brief of 56 Scientific Organizations

  3. Brief of National Science Teachers Association and National Association of Biology Teachers

  4. Brief of Americans United, American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League

  5. Brief of American Jewish Congress

  6. Brief of Clergy and Laity Network and Witherspoon Society

NCSE’s special webpage on Selman

(A seventh brief, from grassroots organizations such as Georgia Citizens for Integrity in Science Education and Kansas Citizens for Science was also filed, and will be uploaded when sent to NCSE. Expect PT’s Reed Cartwright to blog this brief, as he was a key organizer of the appeal brief and a trial court brief. An eighth brief was filed by Georgia religious groups.)

Unfortunately, filing amicus briefs is no guarantee that a court will read them or take heed. The Eleventh Circuit is considered to be rather conservative. But at least the judges will have good information readily available to them, if they are inclined to read it.