School board’s efforts to protect creationism blocked by appeals court

Thursday, August 26, 1999

A panel of federal judges has struck down a Louisiana public school board's effort to require teachers to issue students a disclaimer saying that the teaching of evolution is not intended to subvert students' beliefs in creationism.

Coming only days after the Kansas Board of Education passed standards de-emphasizing evolution, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Aug. 19 unanimously invalidated an effort by a Louisiana public school board to promote religious beliefs in elementary and high school classrooms.

After a failed attempt in 1994 by the Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education to introduce creationism into science classes, calling it “creation science,” the school board devised a disclaimer that teachers would have been required to read in all classes before instruction on evolution. Tangipahoa teachers were to inform students that the school board did not intend for evolution lessons to “influence or dissuade the Biblical version of Creation or any other concept.”

The disclaimer was challenged in federal court by parents of students in the Tangipahoa schools as a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. A U.S. District Court sided with the parents and invalidated the disclaimer, saying the board adopted it solely for religious reasons. The school board then asked the 5th Circuit to overturn the ruling, claiming it adopted the statement to encourage freedom of belief and “to reduce offense to the sensibilities and sensitivities of any student or parent caused by the teaching of evolution.”

However, Judge Fortunato Benavides, writing for the panel, agreed with the district court that the school board's true motives were to endorse and promote religion.

“States may not require that teaching and learning be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma,” Benavides wrote. “The government unconstitutionally endorses religion when it 'conveys a message that religion is favored, preferred or promoted over other beliefs.' “

Benavides then derided the board's reasoning for passing the disclaimer as a “sham.” He said that the disclaimer would not encourage critical thinking, but only protect and maintain “a particular religious viewpoint.”

Attorneys for the school board also argued that the main effect of the disclaimer was to let students know “that they are free to form their own opinions or maintain beliefs taught by parents concerning the origin of life and matter.”

Again the federal appeals panel disagreed.

“Although it is not per se unconstitutional to introduce religion or religious concepts during school hours, there is a fundamental difference between introducing religion and religious concepts in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion or the like and the reading of the School Board-mandated disclaimer now before us,” Benavides wrote. “A teacher's reading of a disclaimer that not only disavows endorsement of educational materials but also juxtaposes that disavowal with an urging to contemplate alternative religious concepts implies School Board approval of religious principles.”

Rob Boston, assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that the 5th Circuit decision was a welcome ruling in light of the Kansas School Board's decision to let schools downplay evolution.

“If the situation in Kansas ends up in court, this decision will give us powerful ammunition against that state's actions,” Boston said.

Berry Ashe and William Treeby, New Orleans attorneys who have been hired to defend the Tangipahoa school board, said that they would ask the entire 5th Circuit to review and invalidate the panel's ruling. Ashe said the school board disagreed with the decision and that on or before Sept. 3 a motion would be filed with the entire circuit.