Creationism, Evolution, and Religion
In 1925, the Tennessee Legislature passed the Butler Act, a law that prohibited public school employees from teaching “any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible,” including any theory “that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” The statute led to the prosecution and conviction later that year of John T. Scopes, a high school biology teacher who dared to discuss evolution with his students. Scopes was represented by the ACLU, a then relatively new organization dedicated to preserving individual rights and liberties guaranteed by law. The proceedings—dubbed the “Scopes Monkey Trial” by the media—attracted international attention, and the conviction was ultimately overturned. The Tennessee law was never enforced again and similar evolution bans across the country were, over a number of decades, defeated.
In 1968, more than four decades after Scopes, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a state ban on teaching evolution in public schools. Susan Epperson, a tenth-grade biology teacher at Little Rock Central High School, challenged the Arkansas law that prohibited public school teachers from teaching, or using textbooks that teach, human evolution. Much to the dismay of creationists, the Supreme Court agreed that the law was an unconstitutional “attempt to blot out a particular theory because of its supposed conflict with the biblical account, literally read.”
Today, the teaching of evolution is no longer a criminal act or prohibited in any state. Indeed, though an organized movement of creationists has doggedly pursued various strategies to gain approval for anti-evolution laws and other policies that seek to inject creationist beliefs into public school science curricula, American courts have repeatedly ruled that it is unlawful to censor the teaching of evolution in public schools or to use those schools to promote religious doctrine such as creationism. Despite its spectacular losses in the courts of law, however, the creationist movement marches on.
Unable to banish evolution education from public school classrooms and barred from using public schools to promote creationism, the creationist movement shifted course again, claiming to have developed a new scientific theory to rival evolution: so-called “intelligent design.” The movement never came close to reaching its goals. For one, intelligent design proponents were unable to produce any credible scientific research to buttress their belief. In addition, the campaign to formally incorporate intelligent design into public school curricula as a legitimate alternative to evolution failed after a federal judge ruled in 2006—in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, a case brought by the ACLU and its allies—that intelligent design is just another extension of creationism, there is no scientific evidence to support it, and it cannot be taught in public schools.
Since then, creationism advocates have increasingly focused on the false claim that there is controversy in the legitimate scientific community regarding the purported “strengths and weaknesses” of evolutionary theory.
In addition to the serious harm caused to science education, the use of public schools to advance religious ideology infringes on the constitutional rights of every student to be free from government-imposed religious indoctrination. As long as the pro-creationist and anti-science crusaders seek to subvert the First Amendment by injecting their religious viewpoint into our public school curricula, the ACLU will relentlessly push back.