Teaching of Creationism Evolution and Intelligent Design

Four distinct movements in American educational history have approached the interpretation of what may be taught to children regarding the origins of life. The first movement focused on the teaching of the theory of evolution in the public schools. The second movement dealt with the teaching of creationism only in the public schools. The third movement sought to provide equal time to both the theories of evolution and creationism. Most recently, these two have been joined by a fourth movement that seeks to introduce creationism into public school science curricula through either the mandatory teaching of intelligent design or divine design, or mandatory disclaimers as to the factual nature of the theory of evolution.

The second, third, and fourth movements have in common the belief that all living species in their present form can be attributed to a creator or designer that is supernatural or not knowable by scientific means. These perspectives also share the goal of challenging the scientific explanation of life, or the theory of evolution, that all living species are the result of physical changes over time through natural processes that can be explained by scientific means.

Opposing Sides

Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in his seminal work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), is the foundation of the first movement, the theory of evolution. Even so, prior to Darwin’s theory of evolution, there were escalated controversies between scientists and religious fundamentalists. In fact, two centuries before Darwin’s theory of evolution, the religious and scientific communities struggled with their respective explanations of life. The most famous early controversy was the trial of Galileo in 1633 for publishing Dialogue, a book that supported the Copernican theory that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way, as the Bible suggests.

The second movement involving the teaching of creationism sought to forbid the teaching of evolution and mandate the teaching of creationism. The theory of evolution, which was being taught in public school classrooms, came under challenge and became visible in the Scopes “Monkey Trial” (Scopes v. State, 1927). According to a state law from Tennessee, the teaching of evolution in public schools was a criminal offense. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) assisted in the defense of John Scopes, a public schoolteacher charged under the statute. Mr. Scopes was prohibited from teaching evolution and convicted of the criminal offense. Decades after this trial, the Tennessee state legislature continues to attempt to challenge the teaching of evolution as battles are waged in school board rooms throughout the state.

Court Intervention

This challenge remained unresolved until, in 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court entered the fray in Epperson v. State of Arkansas, which declared an Arkansas law that prohibited the teaching of evolution unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, because its purpose was the advancement of a religious belief in creationism. The Court found implicit state support of the Christian doctrine of creationism.

Epperson emphasized that the Establishment Clause protects against advocacy by government for religion. To this end, the Court ruled that the government must remain neutral in the area of religion. The Court suggested that teaching religion in public schools as part of history was acceptable, but teaching it for the purposes of furthering a religious doctrine was constitutionally forbidden.

The third movement attempted to avoid violating the Establishing Clause by mandating the teaching of creation science (creationism) as an alternative theory to evolution and to balance the teaching of evolution and creationism. Creationists sought to avoid being classified as promoting religion by providing scientific explanations of divine creation and avoiding any reference to the literal interpretation of the book of Genesis in the Bible (Edwards v. Aguillard, 1987). In 1985, lower federal courts, affirmed by the Supreme Court, agreed that a Louisiana creationism statute was unconstitutional, because it removed the state from a position of neutrality toward advancing a particular belief. Of particular significance was the Court’s statement in Edwards that the Establishment Clause bars any theory based on supernatural or divine creation, because these theories are inherently and inescapably religious, regardless of whether they are presented as a philosophy or a science.

In 1999, the Kansas Board of Education voted to remove evolution from the list of subjects tested on state standardized tests. In 2000, Kansas voters responded by eliminating the antievolution board and restored the old science standards. However, by 2004, a new board majority proposed that intelligent design be discussed in science classes.

The Current Debate

The fourth movement advocates for equal time for the teaching of intelligent design alongside the other theories. Parents represented by the ACLU successfully challenged a policy from the Dover, Pennsylvania, school district that required high school science teachers to read a statement questioning the theory of evolution and presenting intelligent design as an alternative (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 2005). Proponents of intelligent design do not mention the nature of the intelligent designer and the Bible. The plaintiffs successfully argued that intelligent design is a form of creationism, and that the school board policy violated the Establishment Clause. In reaching its judgment, the court maintained that the religious nature of intelligent design would be readily apparent to an objective observer, adult or child. The other issue that the court specifically addressed was the question of whether intelligent design was religion or science. The court specifically concluded that intelligent design is not a science and cannot be separated from its religious purposes.

Conflicts between science and religion, and their respective roles in American classrooms, will not end any time soon. In the future, legal conflicts between science and religion can be expected to continue.

Deborah E. Stine

See also Darrow, Clarence S.; Edwards v. Aguillard; Epperson v. State of Arkansas; First Amendment; Prayer in Public Schools; Scopes Monkey Trial; State Aid and the Establishment Clause

Further Readings

  • Darwin, C. (1859). On the origin of species by means of natural selection. London: J. Murray. 
  • Feldman, N. (2006). Divided by God: America’s church–state problem . . . and what we should do about it. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 
  • Looney, S. (2004). Education and the legal system: A guide to understanding the law. Columbus, OH: Pearson Education. 
  • Stone, G., Seidman, L., Sunstein, C., Tushnet, M., & Karlan, P. Constitutional law (4th ed.). New York: Aspen. 

Legal Citations