Edwards v. Aguillard

At issue in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) was whether a Louisiana statute titled “Balanced Treatment Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Institutions Act” was unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits states from making laws respecting an establishment of religion. This “Creationism Act,” as it was called, was a mandate forbidding the teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools unless accompanied by the teaching of creation science.

The legislative purpose of Louisiana’s Creationism Act was to focus attention on certain areas of science instruction related to the creation of mankind. The U.S. Supreme Court examined whether this statute advanced academic freedom, provided teachers with new authority, promoted fairness, or maximized the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of science instruction. The Court found the act did not grant teachers the flexibility they already had, in that scientific concepts based on established fact already could be taught. Further, the Court found that the Creationism Act incorporated the development of curricular guidelines and research for creation science to the exclusion of evolution. Therefore, the Court noted that if the legislature was attempting to maximize the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of science instruction, it would have included the teaching of all scientific theories about the origins of mankind.

The Court held that the state legislature had a preeminent religious purpose in enacting this statute. The Court thought that the state legislature was attempting to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created man. The Court determined that the statute violated the Establishment Clause because it sought to employ the symbolic and financial support of government to achieve a religious purpose. The Court thus held that the state statute was unconstitutional because it lacked a secular purpose.

The Supreme Court compared Aguillard to other cases where state legislation was struck down as unconstitutional if the legislature’s preeminent purpose was to further religion. Comparing Aguillard to Epperson v. State of Arkansas (1968), another one if its judgments involving a state statute regulating the teaching of evolution as a scientific theory, the Court decided that so long as there was no doubt that the motivation for the statute was to suppress the teaching of a theory thought to deny the Divine Creation of man, the legislature unlawfully used its position to protect a particular religious view from scientific views that were distasteful to it.

One case resolved by the Supreme Court that has guided many of the decisions related to the application of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause is Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). In Lemon, the Court formulated a three-part test to be used in determining the constitutionality of state statutes that involved the use of state funding or state resources for education. The three prongs of the Lemon test are whether a statute has a secular legislature purpose, whether the statute has a primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion, and whether the statute and its administration creates an excessive government entanglement with religion. In Aguillard, the Court was of the opinion that the state statute failed the Lemon test insofar as its primary purpose was that of advancing religion in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Aguillard has relevance for school leaders today in guiding a school’s approach related to exclusion or inclusion of science curriculum having to do with the origin of mankind. Today, consistent with Aguillard, science curriculum related to the creation of mankind is often presented as theory rather than fact, and consonant with Aguillard, it should avoid having as its purpose the presentation of a particular religious viewpoint. Aguillard is consistent with other Supreme Court cases, such as Epperson v. State of Arkansas, wherein the justices noted that the First Amendment precluded states from barring public school instruction, such as teaching about evolution, simply because the instruction conflicts with certain religious views.

Aguillard furthered this notion by determining that if a state statute requiring that instruction in the biblical account of creation must be taught whenever the theory of evolution was introduced, it was unconstitutional because it advanced religion. As a result of Aguillard, science curricula and instruction in public schools related to the origins of mankind often include the biblical explanation as well as other theories, such as evolution, while avoiding the incorporation of or fostering of any particular religious point of view.

Vivian Hopp Gordon

See also Creationism, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, Teaching of; Epperson v. State of Arkansas; First Amendment; Lemon v. Kurtzman

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