The First Amendment v. Fundamentalism: Intelligent Design in the Public School Classroom: Mara Wishingrad

By Mara Wishingrad


Mara Wishingrad

The right to practice religion must encompass the right to practice no religion at all. Our forefathers recognized this and drafted the First Amendment with explicit language that prevents government from endorsing religion. Section three of the First Amendment, known as the “Establishment Clause,” provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Fourteenth Amendment made the First Amendment applicable to the states, and thus any state governmental body that acts to advance religion is in violation of the Establishment Clause. Since the 19th century, fundamentalists have attempted to get state legislatures and local school boards to adopt laws restricting public schools from teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution and substituting various creationist theories in its place. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that this violates the First Amendment. Intelligent design is just the latest name for creationism; it is a religious belief, not a scientific theory, and therefore teaching it in public schools violates the Constitution.

In a line of cases that began in 1968 with Epperson v. Arkansas, the Supreme Court has struck down numerous attempts by state legislatures and local school boards to introduce creationism into public schools. In Epperson, the Court ruled that an Arkansas statute that prohibited the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional, preventing religious proponents from substituting the biblical account of creation for Darwin’s theory. Thereafter, fundamentalists fought for “balanced treatment” statutes, which required public schools teaching evolution to devote equal time to teaching the religious version of humankind’s origin. In Daniel v. Waters, a federal appeals court rejected this approach, recognizing that it was just another attempt to introduce religion into the classroom.

Attempts were then made to use scientific language, such as “creation science” and “scientific creationism,” to describe religious beliefs. This subterfuge was also rejected by a federal court in the case of McLean v. Arkansas, which held that “creation science” was not a science because it depended on divine intervention. In 1987, in Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court made McLean the law of the land, holding that teaching “creation science” along with evolution violated the Establishment Clause.

The issue of teaching intelligent design in public schools has not yet come up before the Supreme Court, but it has been addressed in the federal case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005). In an eloquent opinion, Judge John Jones III examined the doctrine of intelligent design and concludes that it “is nothing less than the progeny of creationism.” Judge Jones reviewed voluminous evidence that proves intelligent design is a religious belief and not a scientific theory, and that its religious nature would be readily apparent to an objective observer. He pointed out that intelligent design is an old religious argument that dates back to Thomas Aquinas: Wherever complex design exists, there must have been a designer. Nature is complex; therefore nature must have had an intelligent designer. This argument was resurrected by Rev. Paley in the 19th century to “prove” the existence of God. Intelligent design proponents admit that it is the same argument made by Paley, but intelligent design’s “official position” doesn’t acknowledge that the “designer” is God. However, Jones found that intelligent design’s description of a “master intellect” strongly suggests a supernatural deity. Furthermore, an intelligent design textbook, Pandas and People, states that science cannot answer the question as to what kind of intelligent agent the designer was, that only religion and philosophy could answer that question. An intelligent design proponent testified that the plausibility of intelligent design depended on the extent to which one believed in God. Judge Jones also found that the writings of the father of the intelligent design movement, Phillip Johnson, indicate that the designer is the God of Christianity.

Jones concluded that intelligent design is a religious belief and not a scientific theory because it involves a supernatural designer. Scientific method requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based on what we can observe, test, replicate and verify. Once you attribute causation to a supernatural force that cannot be disproved, you have left the realm of science. Jones noted that intelligent design has not been the subject of testing and research, nor has it been the subject of any peer-reviewed publications; there has been no acceptance for intelligent design in the scientific community.

Intelligent design is based on a false dichotomy: to the extent evolution is discredited, intelligent design is confirmed. This is a logical fallacy, for even if evolution were to be disproved, it doesn’t follow that intelligent design has to be true. Intelligent design is built around the negative argument that an ‘irreducibly complex’ system can’t be explained by Darwinism. What proponents of intelligent design fail to acknowledge is that scientists have shown intermediate structures that demonstrate how natural selection has brought simple organisms together to form more complex biological systems. Furthermore, to the extent that scientists today may not be able to explain how some complex organisms have evolved, doesn’t mean that scientists won’t be able to tomorrow.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment mandates neutrality between religion and nonreligion and that when the government advances religion, it violates the Constitution. Attempts to introduce religion into public school classrooms by teaching a religious belief about the origin of humankind is clearly impermissible under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. As the court so eloquently established in Kitzmiller, intelligent design is merely a religious belief and not a scientific theory; it has no place in public school.

We must never confuse science and religion. Students must be taught to examine problems and seek solutions in a rational fashion based on empirical evidence. If we don’t keep religion out of the public schools, we will not be able to compete in a global economy. Students must be free to pursue an education that isn’t distorted by religious beliefs; we must protect a student’s rights under the First Amendment to exercise freedom from religion.

“I was a senior at the Dalton School, NYC. In September, I will be attending the University of Pennsylvania, where I plan to major in political science. I am interested in intellectual history and the philosophy behind the Constitution. I am also fascinated with current political issues, and avidly follow political news.

“I was captain of the Dalton debate team, managing editor of our school newspaper, and a contributing editor to realpolitik, a public affairs journal. I have worked for several political campaigns; most recently, I have interned with Hillary Clinton’s Senate re-election campaign.

“My father was a constitutional scholar who wrote many articles on the Bill of Rights. He died when I was three years ago. I can think of no better way to honor him than by dedicating my life to preserving our First Amendment right of freedom from religion.”

Mara Wishingrad received a $2,000 cash scholarship for her winning essay from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Freedom From Religion Foundation