Thanksgiving musings

(This is a repost from Thanksgiving of last year, considerably added to and modified.)

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to that class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the traditions and history and culture of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have all the fond memories associated with the childhood experience of visiting my grandparents’ homes for this occasion for a big family reunion, this holiday initially left me unmoved.
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From Scopes to Dover-22: Creation science is reborn as intelligent design

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

It was with this history of US Supreme Court decisions in mind that we can understand the emergence of the intelligent design creationism (IDC) movement. IDC has to be understood as a carefully crafted theory that was designed to overcome the legal restrictions placed by the establishment clause on inserting religion back into the public schools.

The fundamental goal was still the same: to undermine the theory of evolution and to bring back into schools a god-centered view of creation. But mindful of all the legal setbacks that previous efforts had met, IDC advocates like Berkeley law professor Philip Johnson, tried to find a way to make it acceptable to the courts. Johnson is considered the father of the intelligent design creationism movement, and his book Darwin on Trial (1991) marked its beginning.

The Berkeley Science Review describes the founding of the movement:

Two years later [i.e. 1993], Johnson organized a meeting at Pajaro Dunes near Monterey to bring like-minded thinkers together. Its participants would become the major public figures in intelligent design: Scott Minnich and Michael Behe, who would testify on behalf of ID in Dover, Steven Meyer, who would direct the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, and Jonathan Wells, who pursued a PhD in molecular and cell biology at Berkeley after becoming convinced that he “should devote [his] life to destroying Darwinism.”

As we have seen, a succession of judicial rulings had drastically narrowed the range of options open to evolution’s opponents. To recapitulate, in the early days of the republic, public schools taught a generic Protestant-based ideology and the King James’s Bible. But even before the theory of evolution had been announced by Charles Darwin in 1859, the idea of separation of church and state had gained ground and largely resulted by the end of the 19th century in the elimination of religious instruction and the Bible from schools. As the theory of evolution gained ground and became widely taught in schools in the early days of the 20th century, those who were sensitive to its negative implications for religion sought to ban its teaching in schools in order to restore neutrality between what they saw as religious and anti-religious viewpoints.

But attempts to forbid the teaching of evolution had been ruled unconstitutional in Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), the case that was the rightful successor to the Scopes case. The subsequent attempt in 1974 by Tennessee to restore the balance by explicitly teaching the Genesis theories of creationism along with evolution had been ruled unconstitutional by an appeals court and did not even reach the US Supreme Court. (The ever-resilient people of Tennessee tried again in 1996 to pass legislation restricting teaching evolution in schools. The effort failed, presumably because enough legislators realized that they were facing an uphill constitutional battle. (Larson, p. 262))

Realizing that trying to keep evolution out of the schools was futile and introducing explicitly religious ideas into the curriculum to balance evolution was also going nowhere, religious people adopted the ‘equal time’ or ‘balanced treatment’ strategies that Arkansas and Louisiana attempted in 1981. This removed explicit references to religion and the Bible, and instead requested equal time for something called “creation science” to counter the effects of evolution. That strategy had not swayed the courts either, with the Arkansas statute overturned in 1982 in a federal district court and the Louisiana statute overturned by the US Supreme Court in 1987 in Edwards v. Aguillard.

This did not leave religious advocates with much room to maneuver. People who wanted to bring back god into the classroom realized that it required a much more subtle and sophisticated strategy than what had been tried before. The first thing they had to do was to disown any formal links with earlier creationism movements such as “creation science” since those movements had already been tainted by being identified with one particular religious view and teaching that view been rejected by the courts as violating the establishment clause. In Edwards v. Aguillard, the court had made this point quite clear: “The Act impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind. The legislative history demonstrates that the term “creation science,” as contemplated by the state legislature, embraces this religious teaching.” The decision said that the creation science legislation failed all three Lemon tests: the legislation must have a secular purpose, its primary purpose must be neutral towards religion, and avoid excessive entanglement of the government with religion.

This is why the IDC people tried to avoid at all costs being associated with “creationist” label. It was seen as the kiss of death, as far as constitutional acceptability went. The IDC strategy would be to never even mention the Bible or god or Christianity or creationism or creation science, or even to require the teaching of any alternative theories to evolution, since that too had been seen as constitutionally suspect.

The only option that remained was to seek to discredit the theory of evolution altogether by undermining its credibility. In order to do this, two of the original IDC strategists, Michael Behe and Jonathan Wells wrote their own books, Darwin’s Black Box (1996) and Icons of Evolution (2000) respectively, both targeting evolution and alleging that the theory had fatal weaknesses. These books would become the sacred texts of the IDC movement. Wells’ book follows up a 1978 book that also sought to highlight the alleged weaknesses of evolution, Evolution – The fossils say no! by Duane Gish. (It is interesting that the IDC movement umbrella covers a wide spectrum of religious believers, with Behe being a Roman Catholic and Wells a member of the Unification Church of Reverend Sun Myung Moon.)

Of course, such a minimalist strategy of merely discrediting the theory of evolution by natural selection fell far short of the goals that fundamentalist religious people wanted, which was to bring back into the schools prayer and Bible readings as well as the Genesis story. Since the IDC movement needed the political and economic support of these religious people, what we saw was a delicate maneuvering, trying to balance the legal requirement to avoid seeming to have anything to do with religion, while at the same time reassuring religious believers that intelligent design was a way of getting religion back in the schools.

So there developed an elaborate and carefully choreographed dance, consisting of nods and winks and nudges to the faithful that the IDC movement was merely the vanguard designed to get the religious nose into the tent of the schools. Once that had been established, once the wall of separation in the establishment clause prohibition had been breached in that way, it was felt that the other religious practices could be slowly re-established. This strategy was fully laid out in an IDC internal document known, appropriately enough, as the ‘Wedge Strategy’, which will be described in the next posting.

POST SCRIPT: Creation Science 101

From Scopes to Dover-21: The death of ‘creation science’

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

In the previous post we saw how the goal of trying to get creationist ideas back into the science classroom took the form of the birth of ‘creation science’ and calling for it to be taught along with evolution. While ‘creation science’ had no explicitly religious language, it was clearly a Genesis-based, young Earth, Biblical creationism. The 1981 Arkansas law calling for the balanced treatment of creation science and evolution was promptly overturned in 1982 by a US District Court judge.

The Louisiana ‘balanced treatment’ act of 1981 was less restrictive than the Arkansas one, since its call for teaching creation science merely meant talking about the “scientific evidences for creation and inferences from those scientific evidences”. So while that gave its backers initial hopes that it would survive constitutional challenge, by now the historical record of religious-based efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution, starting with the Scopes trial, was too heavy a baggage for these efforts to overcome. It had become increasingly difficult to argue that the fight against the teaching of evolution was not religion-based, and this ended up dooming the Louisiana statute. The Louisiana Act, like its Arkansas counterpart, was overturned by a US District Court. The case was then appealed to a federal Appeals Court, where the District Court ruling was upheld by a narrow 8-7 margin.

The trail linking opposition to the teaching of evolution to advocacy of religion was just too long, and the ghost of the Scopes trial emerged from the shadows again. As the federal Appeals Court panel said when it made its ruling: “The case comes to us against a historical background that cannot be denied or ignored. . .The Act continues the battle William Jennings Bryan carried to his grave. The Act’s intended effect is to discredit evolution by counterbalancing its teaching at every turn with the teaching of creationism, a religious belief. The statute therefore is a law respecting a particular religious belief. . . and thus is unconstitutional.” (Summer of the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997 p. 259)

The narrowness of the margin must have given the law’s supporters hope that the US Supreme Court might overturn the verdict, and the Appeals Court ruling was appealed. But their hopes were dashed. The Supreme Court in a 7-2 ruling (with Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Scalia dissenting) issued its verdict on this case in 1987 in Edwards v. Aguillard 482 US 578, in which it said that the Louisiana statute violated the establishment clause.

The summary of the majority opinion stated:

(a) The Act does not further its stated secular purpose of “protecting academic freedom.” It does not enhance the freedom of teachers to teach what they choose, and fails to further the goal of “teaching all of the evidence.” Forbidding the teaching of evolution when creation science is not also taught undermines the provision of a comprehensive scientific education. Moreover, requiring the teaching of creation science with evolution does not give schoolteachers a flexibility that they did not already possess to supplant the present science curriculum with the presentation of theories, besides evolution, about the origin of life. Furthermore, the contention that the Act furthers a “basic concept of fairness” by requiring the teaching of all of the evidence on the subject is without merit. Indeed, the Act evinces a discriminatory preference for the teaching of creation science and against the teaching of evolution by requiring that curriculum guides be developed and resource services supplied for teaching creationism, but not for teaching evolution, by limiting membership on the resource services panel to “creation scientists,” and by forbidding school boards to discriminate against anyone who “chooses to be a creation scientist” or to teach creation science, while failing to protect those who choose to teach other theories or who refuse to teach creation science. A law intended to maximize the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of science instruction would encourage the teaching of all scientific theories about human origins. Instead, this Act has the distinctly different purpose of discrediting evolution by counterbalancing its teaching at every turn with the teaching of creationism.

(b) The Act impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind. The legislative history demonstrates that the term “creation science,” as contemplated by the state legislature, embraces this religious teaching. The Act’s primary purpose was to change the public school science curriculum to provide persuasive advantage to a particular religious doctrine that rejects the factual basis of evolution in its entirety. Thus, the Act is designed either to promote the theory of creation science that embodies a particular religious tenet or to prohibit the teaching of a scientific theory disfavored by certain religious sects. In either case, the Act violates the First Amendment. (my italics)

By now it was clear that the Supreme Court had determined that attempts to teach anything along the lines of ‘creation science’ or to discredit evolution sprang from basically a religious motivation and thus any legislative attempts to do so ran into the immediate presumption that it violated both the purpose and effect prongs of the 1971 Lemon test, thus violating the neutrality requirement set forth in the 1947 Everson ruling.

The next establishment clause case was not directly related to religion in schools but had implications for it that showed up in later cases. It was the 1989 case of County of Allegheny v. ACLU 492 US 573 where some citizens had challenged the practice of having a crèche and a menorah on display in the county courthouse. The court in a 5-4 ruling said that the crèche was unconstitutional. In the majority opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun reiterated the belief that the government must be secular and also addressed the issue of whether denying Christians the right to display their religious symbols was, in effect, favoring nonbelievers.

The Constitution mandates that the government remain secular, rather than affiliating itself with religious beliefs or institutions, precisely in order to avoid discriminating against citizens on the basis of their religious faiths. Thus, the claim that prohibiting government from celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday discriminates against Christians in favor of nonadherents must fail, since it contradicts the fundamental premise of the Establishment Clause itself. In contrast, confining the government’s own Christmas celebration to the holiday’s secular aspects does not favor the religious beliefs of non-Christians over those of Christians, but simply permits the government to acknowledge the holiday without expressing an impermissible allegiance to Christian beliefs.

Although the close 5-4 vote in this case may have initially given some hope to religious groups, even the minority opinion, while disagreeing with this specific verdict and arguing that the crèche was merely a passive symbol reflecting the heritage of the nation and unlikely to lead to the establishment of a state religion, reiterated the basic consensus that the government should not be in the position of seeming to favor one religion.

[T]he Establishment Clause permits government some latitude in recognizing the central role of religion in society. Any approach less sensitive to our heritage would border on latent hostility to religion, as it would require government in all its multifaceted roles to acknowledge only the secular, to the exclusion, and so to the detriment, of the religious. Thus, this Court’s decisions disclose two principles limiting the government’s ability to recognize and accommodate religion: it may not coerce anyone to support or participate in any religion or its exercise; and it may not, in the guise of avoiding hostility or callous indifference, give direct benefits to a religion in such a degree that it, in fact, establishes a state religion or tends to do so. In other words, the government may not place its weight behind an obvious effort to proselytize on behalf of a particular religion. (my italics)

So although this case did not involve evolution, it reinforced the legal principle that the government should practice strict neutrality when it came to matters of religion.

It is in the light of all these US Supreme Court precedents that the intelligent design creationism movement came about. It was designed specifically to overcome these restrictions, especially those that had been enunciated in the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard ruling.

POST SCRIPT: Mickey and the Pope

I recently viewed the film The Da Vinci Code which was largely a waste of time because of its preposterous plot (perhaps the book is better) and was barely made watchable by the engaging presence of its two stars Tom Hanks and Audrey Tatou.

The story makes much of the hidden symbolism in Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper. What some people may not know is that the Pope also commissioned Michelangelo to do a similar portrait that, alas, did not turn out well, as this clip shows.

From Scopes to Dover-20: The birth of ‘creation science’

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

Following the overturning of the 1974 Tennessee “equal emphasis” law, neighboring Axis of Weevils member state Arkansas took the lead in trying to find ways to undermine evolution and introduce religious ideas of creation into the biology curriculum in ways that would not violate the establishment clause. The lesson they drew from the Tennessee case was that any legislation aimed at achieving these goals had to be worded in neutral ways that avoided any and all religious language or references to the Bible. What emerged from this effort is what is now known as ‘creation science’, a superficially non-religious alternative to the theory of evolution by natural selection.
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From Scopes to Dover-19: The Lemon test for the establishment clause

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

The 1968 Epperson ruling left open the question of what should be done about the teaching of some scientific theory that went clearly went against a religious belief. Wouldn’t allowing the teaching of just that theory without balancing it with the teaching of the religious belief violate the strict neutrality, as required by the 1947 Everson verdict?

The concerns raised by Supreme Court Justices Black and Stewart in Epperson were good ones and it was another case in 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 that, although not dealing directly with the teaching of evolution, led to further clarification of this tricky issue and lay the groundwork for future evolution cases.

The Lemon case arose from two separate laws bundled together. One was passed in Rhode Island that provided “for a 15% salary supplement to be paid to teachers in nonpublic schools at which the average per-pupil expenditure on secular education is below the average in public schools. Eligible teachers must teach only courses offered in the public schools, using only materials used in the public schools, and must agree not to teach courses in religion.” The second law was passed in Pennsylvania and authorized “the state Superintendent of Public Instruction to “purchase” certain “secular educational services” from nonpublic schools, directly reimbursing those schools solely for teachers’ salaries, textbooks, and instructional materials. Reimbursement is restricted to courses in specific secular subjects, the textbooks and materials must be approved by the Superintendent, and no payment is to be made for any course containing “any subject matter expressing religious teaching, or the morals or forms of worship of any sect.” ”
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From Scopes to Dover-18: The Epperson opinions

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

The landmark 1968 Epperson case is interesting for a couple of reasons. The shadow of Scopes influenced the ruling and, although the verdict was unanimous, the differences in reasoning by the various justices influenced the strategies adopted in later attempts to combat the teaching of evolution.

In their opinions giving their different reasons for overturning the statute, Justices Abe Fortas and Hugo Black essentially repeat the debate that had occurred nearly a half-century earlier between Darrow and Bryan. In fact, Fortas resurrected the ghost of the Scopes trial in his opinion, referring to the “sensational publicity” surrounding that trial.

In Fortas’s majority opinion, he took roughly the Darrow position and said:

While study of religions and of the Bible from a literary and historic viewpoint, presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, need not collide with the First Amendment’s prohibition, the State may not adopt programs or practices in its public schools or colleges which “aid or oppose” any religion. This prohibition is absolute. It forbids alike the preference of a religious doctrine or the prohibition of theory which is deemed antagonistic to a particular dogma. (my italics)
. . .
Arkansas’ law cannot be defended as an act of religious neutrality. Arkansas did not seek to excise from the curricula of its schools and universities all discussion of the origin of man. The law’s effort was confined to an attempt to blot out a particular theory because of its supposed conflict with the Biblical account, literally read.

Black, however, was uneasy about the reach of the ruling on establishment grounds, preferring to rule it unconstitutional on the grounds of its vagueness, saying: “Under this statute, as construed by the Arkansas Supreme Court, a teacher cannot know whether he is forbidden to mention Darwin’s theory at all or only free to discuss it as long as he refrains from contending that it is true. It is an established rule that a statute which leaves an ordinary man so doubtful about its meaning that he cannot know when he has violated it denies him the first essential of due process.”

Black seemed sympathetic to Bryan’s point that the people’s right (expressed through the agencies of government) to determine what should be taught in schools should not be dismissed too easily.

It may be, instead, that the people’s motive was merely that it would be best to remove this controversial subject from its schools; there is no reason I can imagine why a State is without power to withdraw from its curriculum any subject deemed too emotional and controversial for its public schools. And this Court has consistently held that it is not for us to invalidate a statute because of our views that the “motives” behind its passage were improper; it is simply too difficult to determine what those motives were.
. . .
I am also not ready to hold that a person hired to teach school children takes with him into the classroom a constitutional right to teach sociological, economic, political, or religious subjects that the school’s managers do not want discussed. This Court has said that the rights of free speech, “while fundamental in our democratic society, still do not mean that everyone with opinions or beliefs to express may address a group at any public place and at any time.” . . . I question whether it is absolutely certain, as the Court’s opinion indicates, that “academic freedom” permits a teacher to breach his contractual agreement to teach only the subjects designated by the school authorities who hired him.”

Justice Potter Stewart concurred with Black in agreeing that the statute was unconstitutional on the grounds of vagueness, not because it violated the establishment clause. He also pointed that the rights of states to choose their curricula should not be infringed upon too readily. He also tried to draw a line between the kinds of teaching a state was entitled to determine and what it wasn’t.

The States are most assuredly free “to choose their own curriculums for their own schools.” A State is entirely free, for example, to decide that the only foreign language to be taught in its public school system shall be Spanish. But would a State be constitutionally free to punish a teacher for letting his students know that other languages are also spoken in the world? I think not.

It is one thing for a State to determine that “the subject of higher mathematics, or astronomy, or biology” shall or shall not be included in its public school curriculum. It is quite another thing for a State to make it a criminal offense for a public school teacher so much as to mention the very existence of an entire system of respected human thought. That kind of criminal law, I think, would clearly impinge upon the guarantees of free communication contained in the First Amendment and made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth.

The Arkansas Supreme Court has said that the statute before us may or may not be just such a law. The result, as MR. JUSTICE BLACK points out, is that “a teacher cannot know whether he is forbidden to mention Darwin’s theory at all.” Since I believe that no State could constitutionally forbid a teacher “to mention Darwin’s theory at all,” and since Arkansas may, or may not, have done just that, I conclude that the statute before us is so vague as to be invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Hugo Black made some other interesting points about the idea that the theory of evolution was anti-religious. If it were so, then wouldn’t teaching it violate the idea that the state should be neutral in matters of religion?

A second question that arises for me is whether this Court’s decision forbidding a State to exclude the subject of evolution from its schools infringes the religious freedom of those who consider evolution an anti-religious doctrine. If the theory is considered anti-religious, as the Court indicates, how can the State be bound by the Federal Constitution to permit its teachers to advocate such an “anti-religious” doctrine to school children? The very cases cited by the Court as supporting its conclusion hold that the State must be neutral, not favoring one religious or anti-religious view over another. The Darwinian theory is said to challenge the Bible’s story of creation; so, too, have some of those who believe in the Bible, along with many others, challenged the Darwinian theory. Since there is no indication that the literal Biblical doctrine of the origin of man is included in the curriculum of Arkansas schools, does not the removal of the subject of evolution leave the State in a neutral position toward these supposedly competing religious and anti-religious doctrines? Unless this Court is prepared simply to write off as pure nonsense the views of those who consider evolution an anti-religious doctrine, then this issue presents problems under the Establishment Clause far more troublesome than are discussed in the Court’s opinion. (my italics)

Black is making an interesting point here. There is no question that the theory of evolution has serious negative consequences for religious beliefs. In that sense, it is ‘anti-religion’. More generally, suppose a scientific theory contradicts some religious belief. Doesn’t teaching just that theory and not the opposing religious belief contradict the neutrality requirement of the establishment clause? Wouldn’t neutrality require teaching both or omitting both?

Religious apologists who support science try to avoid this dilemma by arguing that scientific truths cannot, almost by definition, be anti-religious. There is only one truth, they argue, and any seeming contradiction between an established scientific theory and religious beliefs must be due to an erroneous interpretation of religion. This is what those who argue that science and religion are compatible say, dismissing as ‘pure nonsense’, in Black’s words, ‘the views of those who consider evolution an anti-religious doctrine.’

But is it that straightforward? For example, I am convinced that science and religion are incompatible belief systems, and that the more one appreciates the wonder of the scientific viewpoint and the power of methodological naturalism to uncover the truths of the world, the less appeal the supernatural elements of religion have. So is support for the teaching of more and better science necessarily also advocating an anti-religious view and thus violating the neutrality requirement of the establishment clause?

The Epperson case did not need to resolve this particular question and Supreme Court was able to reach a unanimous verdict that the Arkansas law banning the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional while avoiding having to take a position on it. The problem raised by Black was resolved three years later in 1971 in the case of Lemon v. Kutzman that set down the rules by which to judge whether any law violated the establishment clause. That case will be reviewed in the next posting in this series.

POST SCRIPT: Chessboxing?

Is this really a sport?.

Do you ever get the impression that real life is imitating a Monty Python sketch?

From Scopes to Dover-17: Teaching of evolution is back in court

(Note this has been updated)

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

1968 was a watershed year for attempts to ban the teaching of evolution in schools. The events of that year arose because of the rise of creationist thinking in the 1960s. Influential in the rise of the creationist movement was the publication in 1961 of the book The Genesis Flood by John Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris. This was a 500-page book that tried to make the case that scientific evidence supported a literal interpretation of the Bible, down to a 6,000 year old Earth and Noah’s flood. While Whitcomb was a theologian, Morris had a doctoral degree in hydraulic engineering with minors in geology and mathematics. He later founded in 1970 the Institute for Creation Research to advance these ideas.

These new creationist groups took the Bible very literally, more so than William Jennings Bryan, and in fact they thought that during the Scopes trial Bryan had betrayed Christianity by allowing that the creation days of Genesis may have lasted longer than 24 hours, thus allowing the possibility that universe may have been around for more than 6,000 years. The new creationists were having none of that wishy-washiness. Coupled with their strict literal interpretation of the Bible was the powerful feeling that the teaching of evolution had to be countered.

As I wrote in Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs (2000, p. 4):

Initial challenges to the theory of evolution took the form of demands that schools and textbook publishers acknowledge that Darwinian evolution was “only a theory” and not a scientific “fact,” and hence it should be eliminated from the science curriculum since science was supposed to be only concerned with facts. . . But these initial challenges had only minor success. Schools and teachers could hardly be expected not to say anything at all to students about how life and the universe came to be. Since Darwinian evolution had become accepted by professional scientists as the main organizing principle in understanding the appearance of different life forms, it was inevitable that science textbooks and the training of science teachers would reflect that thinking, albeit in a fairly ad-hoc manner.

The paradox was that despite the near universal teaching (in one form or another) of Darwinian evolution in schools, surveys showed a surprising resistance among the general public to key tenets of the theory, especially the one that said that humans and apes had common ancestors. As recently as 1988, 38% of college students believed that human life originated in the Garden of Eden. Feeling that perhaps the reason for this state of affairs was that evolution was not being taught properly, the scientific community planned and implemented a thoroughgoing reform of biology science texts, culminating in the 1960s with the BSCS (Biological Sciences Curriculum Study) textbook series that had evolutionary ideas as a major theme permeating the texts. In these books, there was no escaping the fact that evolution was seen as the organizing principle in biology with no viable alternative.

The BSCS series was widely adopted by schools; but was perceived by creationists as a direct assault by the scientific community on their religious beliefs and galvanized them into responding.

Part of the thrust towards better science education was due to the shock that the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 created. The sense of panic that accompanied the idea that the US was falling behind the Soviet Union in science and technology no doubt helped policymakers override religious believers. These developments led to the next round of court cases.

Recall that even as late as the 1960s, the 1925 Butler Act prohibiting the teaching of evolution was still technically on the books in Tennessee as being constitutional although in the wake of the Scopes trial nobody had enforced it. Texas and Louisiana had also passed laws prohibiting any mention of evolution in textbooks that were approved by the state. ((Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 221)

In 1928, Arkansas (like Tennessee in 1925) had passed a law by popular referendum that made it unlawful for a teacher in any state supported school or university to teach or to use a textbook that teaches “that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals.” This law, like the Butler Act after Scopes, was also never enforced until 1965 when the state adopted the BSCS textbooks that emphasized evolution. But since the law banning the teaching of evolution was still on the books and since the new textbooks explicitly required the teaching of evolution, the state teacher’s organization saw the opportunity to put the law to the test and challenged it using, as in Scopes, another young biology teacher (Susan Epperson) as the key player, this time as the lead plaintiff challenging the validity of the law, rather than as someone accused of breaking the law.

The trial judge ruled in favor of Epperson and overturned the law on the grounds that it unconstitutionally limited the teacher’s freedom to teach about theories of origins. The state appealed and the Arkansas Supreme Court overruled the trial judge saying that the Arkansas law was a valid exercise of the State’s power to specify the curriculum in public schools.

(As a footnote, as the Arkansas case worked its way up to the Supreme Court, in Tennessee another teacher Gary Scott was threatening to take similar legal action against the Butler Act. This case was initiated in 1967 and coming along at the same time as the release of the memoirs of Scopes, had the potential to make Tennessee the laughing stock of the nation again. This put pressure on the state legislature and in 1967 they finally decided to repeal the Butler Act, bringing that particular chapter of the religion-evolution wars to a close, although other battles would continue.)

So after the passage of more than four decades, the Epperson case achieved what the Scopes case had aspired to do but had failed: be a test case on basic First Amendment issues to be adjudicated by the US Supreme Court. When the Epperson v. Arkansas case finally reached the US Supreme Court in 1968, the court unanimously ruled that the statute effectively banning the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional. But the court but did not agree on the reasons for doing so. Most initially wanted to overturn it on the grounds that the statute was too vague rather than that it violated the establishment clause, but in the end Justice Abe Fortas wrote the majority opinion saying that it was indeed a First Amendment establishment clause violation.

In the summary of the ruling on Epperson v. Arkansas 393 US 97, it states among other things:

“(b) The sole reason for the Arkansas law is that a particular religious group considers the evolution theory to conflict with the account of the origin of man set forth in the Book of Genesis. . .

(c) The First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion. . .

(d) A State’s right to prescribe the public school curriculum does not include the right to prohibit teaching a scientific theory or doctrine for reasons that run counter to the principles of the First Amendment.. . .(my italics)

(e) The Arkansas law is not a manifestation of religious neutrality.”

Note that in the italicized section, the court rejects simple majoritarian thinking, saying that constitutional restrictions limit the power of school boards to completely prescribe the curriculum.

But while the 1968 Epperson ruling was a clear victory for the teaching of evolution and provided the definitive answer that the 1925 Scopes case had sought and failed to deliver, the opinions of the various judges provides some interesting perspectives and arguments that are worth reviewing, and will be the subject of the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Teasing telemarketers

Telemarketers are annoying but I also feel sorry for them because it must be a really awful job. I do not give them a hard time, instead politely terminating the conversation quickly. But someone named Tom Mabe decided to have some fun at the expense of a telemarketer.

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.

From Scopes to Dover-15: Religion gets edged out of schools even more

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

In the previous posts, we saw that by the first half of the twentieth century, the idea of the separation of church and state had taken such hold in the country that most religion-based practices had been taken out of the schools, although a few practices still remained. As religious groups tried to get more religion back into the schools, these various efforts led to more court cases.

The next major religion in schools case came in 1948, the year following the landmark Everson ruling, as a result of the growing practice of public schools granting ‘release time’ for the teaching of religion. This practice arose because some parents felt that relegating religious instruction to just the weekends to be done by private individuals or priests diminished the importance of religion in the eyes of children when compared to the secular curriculum taught as part of the regular school day. So they requested and received permission from schools to use part of the school day to teach religion, although the details of implementation varied from place to place.

In the case McCollum v. Board of Education (333 U.S. 203), a parent challenged the release time policy of the local public schools, whereby thirty to forty five minutes were set aside each week for teachers of religion, paid by a private consortium of religious organizations, to come to the schools to provide religious instruction to students whose parents had consented to have them attend. Children whose parents did not want such instruction for their children had to leave their classrooms and go to other parts of the building for secular studies. One such parent challenged the practice and the case went all the way to the US Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court in an 8-1 decision ruled that this practice was unconstitutional and effectively barred all religious instruction within public schools. Citing the Everson guidelines, Justice Black in his majority ruling struck down this policy saying that this use of the public school building and time to further religious education:

is beyond all question a utilization of the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups to spread their faith.
. . .
For the First Amendment rests upon the premise that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other within its respective sphere. Or, as we said in the Everson case, the First Amendment has erected a wall between Church and State which must be kept high and impregnable.

Here not only are the State’s tax-supported public school buildings used for the dissemination of religious doctrines. The State also affords sectarian groups an invaluable aid in that it helps to provide pupils for their religious classes through use of the State’s compulsory public school machinery. This is not separation of Church and State.

1952 saw a variant of the McCollum case Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, in which schools would authorize students during school hours, on written requests of their parents, to leave the school buildings and grounds and go to religious centers for religious instruction or devotional exercises. In this case, the US Supreme Court ruled in a split decision that this practice did not violate the establishment clause.

The next major case that resulted in further separation of religion and schools was in 1962 in Engel v. Vitale 370 U.S. 421. The New York state Board of Regents had adopted a policy whereby each class had to begin each day by saying aloud in the presence of the teacher the following prayer: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”

Ten parents filed an objection to this so-called Regent’s Prayer. The US Supreme Court struck down the policy saying that having such governmental composed prayers, even if every student were not compelled to say it aloud, was unconstitutional. The ruling said that “state officials may not compose an official state prayer and require that it be recited in the public schools of the State at the beginning of each school day — even if the prayer is denominationally neutral and pupils who wish to do so may remain silent or be excused from the room while the prayer is being recited.”

Justice Hugo Black was again the author of this majority 6-1 opinion, and in it he said that: “The respondents’ argument to the contrary, which is largely based upon the contention that the Regents’ prayer is “nondenominational” and the fact that the program, as modified and approved by state courts, does not require all pupils to recite the prayer, but permits those who wish to do so to remain silent or be excused from the room, ignores the essential nature of the program’s constitutional defects. . . When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain.”

He drew upon history arguing that this kind of state-sponsored religion was precisely what the early colonialists had tried to escape in Europe and he deplored the tendency of people who oppose acts when they are in the minority singing a different tune when they become the majority. “It is a matter of history that this very practice of establishing governmentally composed prayers for religious services was one of the reasons which caused many of our early colonists to leave England and seek religious freedom in America.. . .It is an unfortunate fact of history that, when some of the very groups which had most strenuously opposed the established Church of England found themselves sufficiently in control of colonial governments in this country to write their own prayers into law, they passed laws making their own religion the official religion of their respective colonies.”

Black rejected the argument that prohibiting practices such as this was demonstrating hostility to religion. He said that the founding fathers were instead trying to avoid the pitfalls that inevitably ensue when religion and the state get entangled, saying that they had “well justified fears which nearly all of them felt arising out of an awareness that governments of the past had shackled men’s tongues to make them speak only the religious thoughts that government wanted them to speak and to pray only to the God that government wanted them to pray to.”

Next: All prayer and Bible reading in schools is ruled unconstitutional

POST SCRIPT: Dover trial on Nova

The PBS show Nova is having a two-hour special documentary on the Dover trial called Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on trial, which is what my current series of posts is leading up to. If I was better organized, or not as long-winded, my series would have started earlier and my final posts, which deal with this trial would have coincided with the broadcast. Oh, well,…

The show is scheduled to be broadcast tomorrow (Tuesday, November 13, 2007) at 8:00pm EST but check your local PBS station for exact dates and times.

Here is a preview of the program

There is also a companion website.

From Scopes to Dover-14: Religion gets edged out of the schools

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

Following their failure to have the separation of church and state incorporated as an amendment into the US constitution, proponents of separation in the late 19th century then shifted strategy, urging changes in state constitutions and arguing that the federal constitution had implicitly advocated separation all along and that what was necessary was a reinterpretation of its key clauses. A broad coalition of forces – including Baptists, Jews, atheists, Masons, the Ku Klux Klan – supported this idea, some to prevent the encroachment into government by particular religious sects (especially Catholics), others because they really did want all religion out of government institutions. (Separation of Church and State (2002), Philip Hamburger, p. 481) Thus the idea of the separation of church and state, although not explicitly stated in the federal constitution, became widely accepted as a basic underlying principle of the country.

Because the idea of separation had gained considerable popularity by the time of World War I, state supreme courts in several states had started questioning the practice of Bible reading in public schools (Hamburger, p. 369). Use of the Bible in public schools started decreasing to such an extent that parents started becoming concerned that the public schools were providing too little or no religious instruction at all. A Baptist minister in 1919 put it this way, that the tendency “toward the complete secularization of education . . .had grown out of an overemphasis of our doctrine of separation of religious freedom.” He felt that Baptists “have been so insistent on the separation of church and state that we have almost completely separated education and religion to the serious detriment of both.” (Hamburger, p. 383)

Another Baptist summarized how this situation had come to pass:

Two forces, from opposite sides, have cooperated towards this general secularizing of our education. . .First, the Christian forces insisted on the absolute separation of Church and State, and thought of all religion in terms of church creeds and forms. Hence they set themselves against the teaching of Christianity in schools supported by public funds and controlled by boards of education. At the same time non-Christian influences were exerted by men who, like the churchmen, identified religion with the creeds of organized churches and felt that the churches would produce friction and confusion in the schools, would lay a hindering hand on freedom of thought and investigation. Thus the two operated together to eliminate religion from our education.” (Hamburger, p. 383)

This was the climate in which the Scopes trial took place in 1925 and explains the line of argument pursued by William Jennings Bryan. It was a time when teaching of the Bible had largely disappeared from schools. Rather that trying to directly challenge the by-then accepted idea of separation of church and state and reverse the secularization of education that had led to the Bible not being used in public schools, Bryan tried to use the separation idea to his advantage, arguing that evolution was not a scientific fact but an idea based on an atheist doctrine, and thus violated the idea of separation. This line of argument, that the theory of evolution is less a scientific theory than an atheist inspired belief structure akin to a religion, is still widely heard today.

To understand the legal developments after Scopes, recall that prior to 1925, the First Amendment was seen to apply restrictions only on the powers of the federal government. It was the 1925 Gitlow case that expanded the ‘free speech’ and ‘free press’ clauses to state and local governments by incorporating them under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Then in 1940, in the case Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses to spread their message on a public street without seeking prior government approval was upheld unanimously by the US Supreme Court with the court agreeing with the Jehovah’s Witnesses that such restrictions violated the ‘free exercise’ of religion clause in the First Amendment, and that this clause was also explicitly applicable to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment. In Cantwell, the court even stated more expansively that “The fundamental concept of liberty embodied in that Amendment embraces the liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment.. . .The First Amendment declares that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Fourteenth Amendment has rendered the legislatures of the states as incompetent as Congress to enact such laws.”

As the debate over evolution and religion continued after the Scopes trial ended, subsequent court cases can best be understood as being caused by attempts to put at least some religion back into schools by those who felt that separation of church and state had been interpreted too broadly to mean the separation of religion and state.

One key development centered on whether the ‘establishment clause’ was also binding on the states. Although the Supreme Court had stated that it was in the 1940 Cantwell case, only the ‘free exercise clause’ that had really been at issue in that case. The case that definitively settled the ‘establishment clause’ issue was in 1947 in Everson v. Board Of Education (330 U.S. 1).

Everson involved a challenge to the policy of a local school district in New Jersey to reimburse parents for the cost of bus transportation for their children to attend parochial schools. In a close 5-4 decision, the court ruled that doing this did not violate the idea of separation of church and state. The majority ruled that such actions fell into the category of maintaining the general welfare of its citizens and that carrying the idea of separation to such extremes so that no interaction at all could exist between the state and parochial schools might prevent the state from providing even police or fire or other minimal protections and services to those schools.

Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black said:

Measured by these standards, we cannot say that the First Amendment prohibits New Jersey from spending tax-raised funds to pay the bus fares of parochial school pupils as a part of a general program under which it pays the fares of pupils attending public and other schools. . . Moreover, state-paid policemen, detailed to protect children going to and from church schools from the very real hazards of traffic, would serve much the same purpose and accomplish much the same result as state provisions intended to guarantee free transportation of a kind which the state deems to be best for the school children’s welfare. . . Of course, cutting off church schools from these services so separate and so indisputably marked off from the religious function would make it far more difficult for the schools to operate. But such is obviously not the purpose of the First Amendment. That Amendment requires the state to be a neutral in its relations with groups of religious believers and nonbelievers; it does not require the state to be their adversary. State power is no more to be used so as to handicap religions than it is to favor them.

At first, this ruling was seen as a major constitutional defeat for the principle of separation of church and state and Black, the author of the majority verdict, came in for severe criticism. Black has played an important role in the development of judicial doctrine on church-state relations and his history is interesting.

Black had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his native Alabama and had strongly supported its church-state separation policy. Before his elevation to the Supreme Court by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937, Black had been elected to the US Senate from Alabama in 1926 with strong support from the KKK and other groups that saw him as someone who would strengthen that separation. Conversely, his nomination to the Supreme Court had been especially criticized by Catholics who saw him as someone opposed to them. His ruling was thus seen as a let down by those supporters who had rallied to his defense against the Catholics. They viewed his decision as a sop to Catholics, an attempt to deflect charges of being anti-Catholic.

But although his Everson ruling was criticized by advocates of church-state separatism, his ruling actually laid the foundations for subsequent rulings that ever more firmly established the idea that religion and the state should stay separate because it was in the Everson case that the court explicitly ruled that the ‘establishment clause’ protections of the First Amendment were also binding on state and local governments by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Today virtually every protection in the entire Bill of Rights is assumed to apply also to state and local governments by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment.)

Even more importantly, Everson case also set general guidelines on what the establishment clause should be taken to mean, and explicitly inserted Jefferson’s ‘wall of separation between church and state’ into its ruling, thus making that famous phrase part of constitutional law for the first time. Writing for the court, Justice Hugo Black wrote what has since become a major part of the framework for interpreting the establishment clause:

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church-attendance or non-attendance. No tax, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause … was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.”

As Larson points out (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 249), after Everson, “the Court quickly began purging well-entrenched religious practices and influences from state-supported schools.” The precedent set in this case rapidly led to a whole series of Supreme Court decisions, several of them authored by Black, creating greater distance between religion and state, and especially removing religion from schools.

Hamburger suggests (p. 462) that Black was well aware that this would happen and that his Everson ruling that seemingly favored the interests of parochial Catholic schools was a shrewd move on his part, giving a small victory to parochial schools and thus mollifying those critics who had suspected that he was anti-Catholic because of his Ku Klux Klan past, while at the same time laying the foundation for advancing the idea of separation of church and state which he strongly supported but which Catholics felt was aimed at restricting them.

Next: Religious dominos fall in rapid succession

POST SCRIPT: V for Vendetta

One of my favorite films is <a href= for Vendetta, in which the key character is based on Guy Fawkes, whose plot to blow up the British parliament is remembered in England every November 5th. Of course, as usual I forgot the anniversary but Norm Nason of Machines Like Us kindly reminded me of the day and sent me a link to a clip from the film where V gives a talk to the British public warning them of how they have been lulled into accepting an authoritarian system. Replace the British Chancellor with George Bush and you will see an almost exact parallel with what is happening in the US now, where a deliberately frightened public trades away its freedoms for a fraudulent sense of safety.

As the film says: People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.