By Nate Hennagin

A new Gallup Poll released last week says that 40% of Americans believe in a strict creationist view of the world in which evolution did not take place and God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago. Among those who did not fall into that category, 38% believe that evolution did take place, but was guided by a higher power and 16% believe human life evolved without the involvement of any kind of deity.

Creationism Gallup Poll Line Graph

The theory of evolution, first developed by Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species (1859), is widely accepted by the scientific community. However, laws that have barred evolution and required the teaching of creationism have been contested over the years in a number of different court cases. In 1925, the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial" took place in Tennessee after teacher John Scopes violated a law that prohibited public schools from teaching evolution. Although Scopes, backed by the ACLU and legendary attorney Clarence Darrow, was found guilty and fined $100, his battle shed light on the scientific evidence for evolution. Many say that although Scopes lost the trial, he ultimately won the argument. Despite this moral victory in the court of public opinion, however, laws like the one in Tennessee stayed on the books for decades. Finally, in the 1968 case Epperson v. Arkansas, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down Arkansas' version of the law that barred the teaching of evolution in public schools, explaining that "the First Amendment does not permit the State to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any [religion]."

After Epperson, creationists changed their tactics, instead using scientific terms to describe information that was inherently religious and referring to it as "creation science." This simple rephrasing of creationist thought was promoted as a secondary theory that should be given "balanced treatment" alongside evolution. In 1987, however, the Supreme Court once again ruled against creationism in Edwards v. Aguillard, striking down a Louisiana "balanced treatment" law because its "preeminent purpose . . . was clearly to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind."

Creationists once again changed their methods, saying schools should teach "intelligent design" along with evolution. "Intelligent design" claims that life is too complex to be attributed to anything other than a "designer"; of some form. Most proponents of "intelligent design," though, say that it is plausible only if one believes in God. Thus, it is no different than "creation science." And in 2004, the Dover (PA) Area School District Board of Directors required the school's biology students to hear about this "alternative theory." In 2005, however, district court Judge John E. Jones, in Kitzmiller v. Dover School District, held that "intelligent design" is both religious and non-scientific and prohibited the school from requiring teachers to refer to "intelligent design" in science class.

Last Monday was the 5th anniversary of the Dover case, and although this poll does show Americans have made a slight shift towards acceptance of evolution, the broad rejection of evolution is still troubling. The ruling in Dover was a big setback for the supporters of "intelligent design," but this battle is far from over in legislatures, school boards, and classrooms across the country. Each year, legislatures consider "academic freedom" bills, which purport to give "academic freedom" to teachers to freely discuss the "controversial" subject of evolution. These bills are a new attempt to subvert the longstanding rulings and introduce creationism into the science classroom. In 2008, Louisiana passed an "academic freedom" law that allows public school teachers to use supplemental materials in teaching "controversial" issues such as global warming or the origin of species. Other attempts to undermine the science of evolution have included:

  • In 2002 the Cobb County School District in Georgia passed a policy that required science textbooks that included information about evolution to carry a "disclaimer sticker" on them. This policy was ultimately settled and the books no longer carry the sticker.
  • In 2009 by the Texas State Board of Education passed curriculum standards for science education that inserts creationist arguments into textbooks, such as requiring students to consider "all sides" of scientific explanations and "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any date of sudden appearance."
  • And this year, creationists tried to influence the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education's (BESE) science textbook selection process. A politically influential religious organization mounted a campaign, complaining that the biology textbooks under consideration give too much credibility to evolution. The state Department of Education and its Life Sciences Textbook Adoption Committee, however, both recommended that BESE approve the textbooks. Yet, when a BESE committee was first scheduled to vote on the textbooks, it instead referred the matter to an obscure advisory council that included several creationists. Much to the dismay of the pro-creationists in the state, the advisory council approved the textbooks. And finally, just a few weeks ago, the full board approved the textbooks 8-2, choosing sound science over creationism.

Today many boast that the U.S. is leading the world in science and math, yet in 2010 America ranks 17th and 25th, respectively in these two categories. The economy is globalizing rapidly, many American jobs are being shipped overseas, and the U.S. is slipping relative to the rest of the world in innovation. Additionally, despite scientists overwhelming refusal of creationism, in Kentucky the state government is supporting a "Noah's Ark theme park" alongside a creationist museum. We no longer can afford to debate the validity of science like evolution that is as commonly accepted as the theory of gravity or heliocentricity.

Americans United will continue to fight to prevent religious teaching from finding its way into public schools. Help us keep up the fight in the states by visiting our website and signing up for alerts!

To see video of Judge John E. Jones, the presiding judge in Kitzmiller v. Dover, in his speech at the November 2010 Americans United board meeting, click here:Judge John E. Jones: "From Scopes to Kitzmiller and Beyond: Lessons in Judicial Independence."