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Courtroom Controversy

The battle between creationism and evolution in America has largely been played out in the public schools, and, by extension, the courts. In their struggle to bring creationism, in various forms, into the schools and to take evolution out, creationists find themselves blocked by the first amendment to the Constitution -- the separation of church and state. This segment outlines the major court decisions regarding the teaching of evolution in America's science classrooms. Featured participant: Eugenie Scott.

Credits: 2001 WGBH Educational Foundation and Clear Blue Sky Productions, Inc. All rights reserved.

Courtroom Controversy

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3 min, 25 sec

Topics Covered:
Science, Faith, and Politics


Courtroom Controversy:

With nothing like the drama of the Scopes "monkey trial" of 1925, the struggle over what schools should teach about human origins continued through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Adapting to the changing environment, anti-evolutionist tactics have evolved several times -- after being rebuffed in the courts.

In the decades after John Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution in disregard of Tennessee state law, evolutionary thought was downplayed in public schools. It got a boost in the post-Sputnik era of the 1950s and '60s when American schools put new emphasis on science. And in 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an Arkansas case that the state could not legally ban the teaching of evolutionary theory. This was the case of Susan Epperson, a biology teacher at Central High School in Little Rock, who was a devout churchgoer but saw no conflict between Christianity and evolution.

Epperson won in the trial court, but the decision was appealed. The Supreme Court ruled that first, the Arkansas law was too vague to enforce, and second, that it violated the first amendment of the Constitution forbidding the establishment of a religious position in a public school.

Anti-evolutionists then took a different tack. Rather than try to expunge evolution from texts and classrooms, they argue that an "alternative" theory of human origin should be taught alongside evolution. They label this "creation science," and attempt to justify the biblical story of creation "scientifically."

In Arkansas, once again, the state passed a bill requiring equal time for creation science and evolution in school curriculum, leading to a successful challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1982, a federal district court judge overturned the law, saying that its only real effect "is the advancement of religion." The judge, William R. Overton, went further and ruled that creation "science" is not a science, its practitioners aren't involved in a dispassionate search for truth, and that creation science is "religion masquerading as science."

A subsequent Louisiana law requiring "balanced treatment" for creationism and evolution was struck down by a trial court, and in 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the decision. The law, said the court, was unconstitutional because it advanced a religious belief in a supernatural creation of human life.

Even though creationists have failed to demonstrate a scientific basis for a literal reading of biblical creation, their tactics continue to include attempts to discredit the scientific basis of evolutionary theory. Another trend in the creation/evolution controversy is that lately it has being fought at the state and local level, in school boards and state standards, rather than at the Supreme Court level.

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