Strife over evolution, creationism predicted to continue
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — A nationally recognized expert on the historical and legal issues surrounding the teaching of evolution in public schools says the debate is not over and that controversies will continue in the future.
“This issue resurfaces in countless Daytons across the U.S. when science teachers either deify or denigrate Darwin’s theory of evolution,” said University of Georgia law professor Edward J. Larson March 28 on the Middle Tennessee State University campus at the 15th annual Windham Lecture in Liberal Arts.
Larson explained in his speech, “The Creation/Evolution Controversy: From Scopes to Intelligent Design,” that the issue continues to arise because “religion still matters greatly in America.”
Larson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Summer for the Gods — his 1997 book on the famous Scopes trial — explained to the standing-room-only audience the history of the debate from the famous trial in Dayton, Tenn., to the current controversy regarding intelligent design.
He described three phases of the history of anti-evolution forces in public schools: (1) removing evolution from the classroom; (2) balancing the teaching of evolution with creationism; and (3) teaching evolution as “just a theory.”
Larson explained the first period culminated in the historic “Scopes monkey trial,” referred to as the “trial of the century.” In 1922, Tennessee passed a law that forbade the teaching of evolution in public schools. A football coach and science teacher, John Scopes, agreed at a meeting of the American Civil Liberties Union to serve as the defendant in a test case challenging the law. The trial in Rhea County, Tenn., featured legendary courtroom battles between famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow and powerful orator and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution.
A jury convicted Scopes of violating the law but refused to fine him. The trial judge ordered Scopes to pay a $100 fine. In its 1927 decision Scopes v. State, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the conviction, finding that only the jury could fine the defendant. The court then noted that Scopes had left the state and that no further prosecution should take place: “We see nothing to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case. On the contrary, we think the peace and dignity of the State, which all criminal prosecutions are brought to redress, will be better conserved by the entry of a nolle prosequi herein.”
The Scopes trial ended without a court declaration that the Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional under the establishment clause of the First Amendment or a similar provision in the Tennessee Constitution.
“It was America’s first broadcast trial and … is the best-known misdemeanor trial in American history,” Larson told the audience. “The trial made front-page news not only across the county but across the world.”
Larson addressed several misconceptions and myths surrounding the trial.
Many believe that the Darrow-led defense team trounced the Bryan-led prosecution team. Such was not the case. “Most neutral observers thought the trial was a draw,” Larson said. “Virtually no one viewed the trial as decisive. … Both sides effectively communicated their message from Dayton.”
Nor did the trial change the views of those who wanted evolution removed from public school science classes, he noted: “The pace of anti-evolutionism actually picked up after the trial.”
What later changed, said Larson, was that in 1947 the U.S. Supreme Court extended the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the states via the 14th Amendment in Everson v. Board of Education.
Before that decision, the establishment clause, the part of the First Amendment that provides for separation between church and state, was held to apply only against the federal government. Everson, Larson said, led to a “torrent of litigation” in the next few decades, including decisions in the 1960s striking down school-sponsored prayer and, finally, in Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), the issue not reached by the Tennessee courts in Scopes — the constitutionality of a statute forbidding the teaching of evolution in schools.
The Epperson Court wrote: “The State’s undoubted right to prescribe the curriculum for its public schools does not carry with it the right to prohibit, on pain of criminal penalty, the teaching of a scientific theory or doctrine where that prohibition is based upon reasons that violate the First Amendment.”
Larson said the creationism movement gained momentum after an influential 1961 book by Henry Morris and John Whitcomb, Genesis Flood. “The book spawned a movement in fundamentalism known as creationism or scientific creationism,” he said.
Creationists pushed for state legislation providing for equal time for creationism alongside evolution in public science classes. Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee passed such laws.
But in its 1987 decision Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court invalidated the Louisiana Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act. That state law required that if teachers instruct students in the theory of evolution, they must also instruct the students in creation theory.
The Court ruled 7-2 that the law violated the establishment clause, finding that the “preeminent purpose of the Louisiana Legislature was clearly to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind” and that “the purpose of the Creationism Act was to restructure the science curriculum to conform with a particular religious viewpoint.”
The third phase of the movement, in Larson’s analysis, took hold after University of California-Berkeley law professor Phillip E. Johnson, an evangelical Protestant, wrote Darwin on Trial (1992), claiming that evolution was a just a theory and a faulty one. This and other books began further attacks on the teaching of evolution, such as placing disclaimers in textbooks stating that evolution is a theory.
Larson noted that the battle over evolution has continued recently with federal district courts decisions in Georgia and Pennsylvania over “evolution is just a theory” and “intelligent design” policies at the local level.
In January 2005, federal district court judge Clarence Cooper ruled in Selman v. Cobb County School District that the mandated sticker that “evolution is a theory” violates the establishment clause.
In December 2005 federal district court Judge John Jones ruled in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District that a policy requiring the teaching of intelligent design also violated the establishment clause.
In a post-lecture interview, Larson said the future of the controversy could depend on the outcome of the Selman case, which is currently before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “The Selman case is definitely worth watching, and also what happens in Kansas with the teaching standards,” Larson said.
These latest cases show that the controversy is not likely to die down and can resurface at any time, he said. “The controversy has tapped into a cultural divide. It is an oscillating controversy,” he added, referring to its cyclical nature. “If history is any guide, then we’re in for heavy weather again.”