State/Church FAQ


Evolution is the scientific theory that explains Earth's wide variety of species and their striking similarities. Evolution explains how species descended from a common ancestor and were modified by natural selection during that descent. Essentially, parents pass traits on to offspring and different individuals have different traits that give them a competitive edge in passing on those traits to offspring.

Over time the effects of that competitive edge are magnified. Evolution does not state that humans descended from monkeys; evolution shows that humans and monkeys have a common ancestor.

"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."
― Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871)

There is a spectrum of creationist belief. At one end are the Young Earth Creationists, who believe that the world is between 4,000-6,000 years old and that god created all the species (humans and dinosaurs roamed the earth together, under this view). This bible-based belief is contradicted by all available scientific evidence. Intelligent Design ("ID"), somewhat farther along the spectrum, is equally unscientific. ID claims life is too complex to have evolved without a creator, but that the creator need not be complex in order to have generated complex life into existence. Even though creationists reject evolution, their ruses continue to evolve, and every few decades a new creationist ploy surfaces. At bottom, all creationist theories are attempts to do the impossible — square scientific facts with the bible.

It is unconstitutional to prohibit the teaching of evolution. See Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968). Creationists and legislatures rarely test this imperative directly. Instead, schools typically attempt to circumvent the rule by teaching creationism, ID, or by adding disclaimers to evolution lessons or textbooks.

Can public schools teach creationism? Intelligent Design?

No. Courts have consistently ruled that creationism, no matter how it is disguised, cannot be taught in public schools. The law is clear. Any creationist incursion into public schools will be met with the overwhelming precedent upholding the teaching of evolution and striking down the teaching of creationism.

In Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court held that public schools cannot teach "scientific creationism" and struck down the "Louisiana Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act." 482 U.S. 578 (1987). The Act's primary purpose was to advance a particular religious belief — creationism — and it therefore violated the Establishment Clause. See also McLean v. Arkansas Bd. of Ed., 529 F.Supp. 1255 (D.C.Ark., 1982).

In the most recent case to address this issue, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area Sch. Dist., the court found that ID was simply creationism re-labeled: "In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents." 400 F. Supp. 2d 707, 765 (M.D. Pa. 2005). The court held that because "ID is not science, the conclusion is inescapable that the only real effect of the ID Policy is the advancement of religion." Id. at 764. Finally, the court held "the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to a pretext for the Board's real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom, in violation of the Establishment Clause." Id. at 763.

The court drastically limited the ability of creationists to sneak their religious agenda in through the back door. Courts have consistently exposed such proposals as attempts to foist religious beliefs onto vulnerable schoolchildren, often after a costly legal battle. In Dover v. Kitzmiller, the school district paid out over $1,000,000.00 in legal fees for defending a patently unconstitutional scheme.

Teachers have no First Amendment rights to teach creationism and its ilk. See Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, 37 F.3d 517 (9th Cir. 1994)(Permitting a teacher "to discuss his religious beliefs with students during school time on school grounds would violate the Establishment Clause."); Webster v. New Lenox Sch. Dist. No. 122, 917 F.2d 1004 (7th Cir. 1990)(School board's prohibition on teaching "creation science" is valid because the board has a responsibility to ensure that the teacher was not "injecting religious advocacy into the classroom."). This makes sense given that teaching creationism is unconstitutional!

Can evolution lessons be taught with a disclaimer? Can biology textbooks have a disclaimer?

No. Disclaimers attached to evolution lessons are unconstitutional. In Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Bd. of Educ., the court held that reading a disclaimer before teaching evolution violates the Establishment Clause. 185 F.3d 337 (5th Cir. 1999), rehearing en banc denied 201 F.3d 602 (5th Cir. 2000), certorari denied 530 U.S. 1251 (2000). The Fifth Circuit found "that the contested disclaimer does not further the first articulated objective of encouraging informed freedom of belief or critical thinking by students. Even though the final sentence of the disclaimer urges students 'to exercise critical thinking and gather all information possible and closely examine each alternative toward forming an opinion,' we find that the disclaimer as a whole furthers a contrary purpose, namely the protection and maintenance of a particular religious viewpoint." Id. at 344-45. In Kitzmiller, the court also overturned a disclaimer alleging that ID was an alternative to evolution. 400 F.Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Pa 2005).

Disclaimer stickers on biology textbooks are likewise unconstitutional. Selman v. Cobb County School Dist., 390 F. Supp. 2d 1286 (N.D. Ga. 2005)(vacated and remanded by 449 F.3d 1320 for an incomplete evidentiary record). This case was settled prior to a retrial and the school district is now enjoined from adding disclaimers or hindering the teaching of evolution. The original disclaimer incorrectly asserted, "Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things." Id. at 1292.

What about the "equal treatment" of all "theories"?

The word "theory" has multiple definitions that do not carry the same weight as a "scientific theory." Evolution is as much a fact as gravity. Evolution, a scientific theory based on a vast weight of evidence, is overwhelmingly accepted in the scientific community. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest scientific society and publisher of the prestigious journal Science, explains the "theory/scientific theory" difference:

Is evolution "just a theory?" In detective novels, a "theory" is little more than an educated guess, often based on a few circumstantial facts. In science, the word "theory" means much more. A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Such fact-supported theories are not "guesses" but reliable accounts of the real world. The theory of biological evolution is more than "just a theory." It is as factual an explanation of the universe as the atomic theory of matter or the germ theory of disease. Our understanding of gravity is still a work in progress. But the phenomenon of gravity, like evolution, is an accepted fact. 

Scientific theories rely on the scientific method, while creationism relies exclusively on supernatural claims to explain the natural world. Therefore, as the Kitzmiller court rightly pointed out, any "theory" relying on a supernatural claim is religious, not scientific, and cannot constitutionally be taught in public school.

Creationism, intelligent design, and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life or of species are not science because they are not testable by the methods of science. These claims subordinate observed data to statements based on authority, revelation, or religious belief. ... This contrasts with science, where any hypothesis or theory always remains subject to the possibility of rejection or modification in the light of new knowledge. Kitzmiller v. Dover Area Sch. Dist., 400 F.Supp. 2d 707, 737 (M.D. Pa 2005)(emphasis added).

New threats

So-called "academic freedom" laws are the newest tactic in the creationist assault on science education. These laws, such as a new Tennessee law, prohibit schools from punishing teachers who discuss the "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" of evolution and the chemical origins of life. The Louisiana Science Education Act (LSA – R.S. 17:285.1), encourages schools to "create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life . . ." Such mischief-making laws will not shield school districts from the requirements of the U.S. Constitution. Any creationism instruction is still unconstitutional and still subject to constitutional challenge.

If your teacher, school, or school board is promoting creationism, you may contact FFRF here, providing as much detail as possible.

Creationism harms our students and the future of our country

"Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." Theodosius Dobzhansky, American Biology Teacher, vol. 35 (March 1973) pp. 125–129.

The Journal Science published a 2005 study ranking the public acceptance of evolution in 34 "western" countries. The United States ranked 33, second to last. We scored better than Turkey, but worse than Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia, Malta, Poland, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Cyprus, and others. Sadly, studies consistently show that about half of Americans reject evolution.

This sad state of affairs is not only because of the unlawful creationist incursions into our public schools, but because textbooks have been dumbed down in response to creationist campaigns. School boards, teachers and textbook publishers have been so cowed by creationists that they are far more apt to engage in the "sin of omission" (ignoring or scarcely including evolution in the curriculum) than they are apt to commit the "sin of commission" (openly teaching creationism). In short, schools often de-emphasize or minimize evolution out of fear of Religious Right reprisals. Evolution is too important a subject to be sabotaged.

Understanding evolution is absolutely fundamental to any comprehension of biology. Medicine, pharmaceutical research, agriculture, and biotechnology cannot be fully understood and utilized without understanding evolution. The resistance to accepting evolution is putting our students, and therefore the future of our country, at a significant disadvantage. It is retarding progress, and imperiling the standing of the United States in a global market. Eugenie Scott, executive director emerita of the National Center for Science Education, put it best: "You can't really be scientifically literate if you don't understand evolution. And you can't be an educated member of society if you don't understand science." (Quoted in Monica Lam, "Eugenie Scott: Berkeley Scientist Leads Fight to Stop Teaching of Creationism," San Francisco Chronicle, February 7, 2003.)

By Andrew L. Seidel

Copyright FFRF 2014


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