From Scopes to Dover-16: The rise of creationist thinking

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the 1962 Engel case, the Supreme Court had ruled that having students say a state-drafted ‘official’ prayer, however generic, was an unconstitutional violation of the establishment clause. But this left open the constitutionality of ‘spontaneous’ prayers not written by the state. Soon after in 1963, a new case addressed this very issue in School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp 374 U.S. 203.

These were really two cases taken together. In one (Abington v. Schempp), the state of Pennsylvania had passed a law that “At least ten verses from the Holy Bible shall be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day. Any child shall be excused from such Bible reading, or attending such Bible reading, upon the written request of his parent or guardian.”

It was the other companion case (Murray v. Curlett) that received the greatest amount of publicity because it was brought by the prominent atheist Madalyn Murray (later Madalyn Murray O’Hair). This involved a challenge to a 1905 Maryland law that required starting the school day with a reading, without comment, of a passage from the Bible and/or saying the Lord’s Prayer. Parents who objected to the practice could, however, request that their children be excused from this exercise.

The US Supreme Court overturned both policies, ruling that “no state law or school board may require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord’s Prayer be recited in the public schools of a State at the beginning of each school day.”

In its majority opinion (which included Justice Black), Justice Clark disputed the claim that keeping religion out of schools was equivalent to fostering another religion, that of “secularism”. This was something that William Jennings Bryan had argued at the time of the Scopes trial and which one still hears today.

It is insisted that, unless these religious exercises are permitted, a “religion of secularism” is established in the schools. We agree, of course, that the State may not establish a “religion of secularism” in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion, thus “preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.” We do not agree, however, that this decision in any sense has that effect. In addition, it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment. But the exercises here do not fall into those categories. They are religious exercises, required by the States in violation of the command of the First Amendment that the Government maintain strict neutrality, neither aiding nor opposing religion. (my italics)

None of the Supreme Court decisions discussed so far in this series of posts dealt directly with the teaching of evolution as such, and there still was no precedent dealing specifically with that particular topic. But all these cases set the stage on which the re-emergence of controversies over the teaching of evolution would be adjudicated, starting in the mid-1960s.

In the forty years that had passed since the Scopes trial, opposition to the teaching of evolution had remained strong and anti-evolution laws such as Tennessee’s Butler Act still remained on the books, as was a similar law passed in 1928 in neighboring Arkansas. Neither law had been enforced, presumably because of the negative publicity generated by the Scopes trial. But that period of dormancy was soon to end. As we will see, three states Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana (the ‘Axis of Weevils’?) played central roles in the renewed legislative efforts to combat the teaching of evolution in public schools.

As I wrote in Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religion Beliefs (Chapter 1, 2000), popular support for teaching a Bible-based creation model was by no means eliminated by the adverse publicity generated by the Scopes case, and the 1960s saw a dramatic resurgence in creationist views, as well as a shift in their emphasis. Ironically, . . .the newer version, now bearing the name of ‘creation science’, was even less accommodating of mainstream scientific views than the creationist views advocated by William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes trial. As creation science gained popularity, it was accompanied by attempts to displace evolutionary theory from its dominant position within the educational system as the explanation for the origin of life. The main arenas for these battles were local school districts, and primarily involved the selection of textbooks. Textbook publishers, wary of losing lucrative markets, were under increasing pressure to either eliminate Darwinian evolution theory entirely from textbooks or to tone down its claims to success and offer alternative, implicitly creationist, versions as well. It was inevitable that the conflict would sooner or later spill over in the legal arena again.

In 1968, the issue of whether schools could ban the teaching of evolution, the issue that had riveted the nation when Darrow and Bryan argued it in Dayton Tennessee in 1925, finally reached the US Supreme Court. It arose out of a law similar to the Butler Act, but passed in neighboring Arkansas in 1928. This time, the case involved the use of textbooks that included the theory of evolution.

POST SCRIPT: It’s Magic Man!

In order to get ready for the two-hour special documentary on the Dover trial called Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on trial scheduled for tonight (Tuesday, November 13, 2007) at 8:00pm EST (check your local PBS station for exact dates and times), watch comedian Robin Ince perfectly summarize the difference between intelligent design creationism and science.


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