Editor’s Note: This week, Americans United is marking the return of the school year with a special series of education-themed blog posts. Today’s examines a long-running problem: efforts to slip creationism into public school science classes.
Religious fundamentalists who want to water down or remove the teaching of evolution in public school science classes haven’t fared very well in court.
You can reel off a list of their courtroom defeats: In Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), the Supreme Court struck down an Arkansas law that made it illegal to teach evolution in public schools. Nineteen years later, the high court invalidated a Louisiana law that required public schools to offer “balanced treatment” between evolution and creationism in Edwards v. Aguillard.
Many lower courts have followed suit. A federal court in 1982 struck down an Arkansas law that mandated equal time for “creation science,” and in 2005, Americans United and its allies won an important ruling removing “intelligent design” from public schools in Dover, Pa.
The creationists aren’t doing well in court. That’s the good news.
Here’s the bad news: Despite these losses, the creationists’ influence over public education is much stronger than it should be.
Americans United and our friends at the National Center for Science Education work hard to monitor the situation nationwide. It can be a daunting task. Public education is decentralized in this country, with an estimated 13,500 separate school districts. Yes, it’s illegal to teach religiously based concepts of origins in those schools, but that doesn’t mean they all automatically follow the rulings or do a good job teaching evolution. Some teach it poorly, if at all.
Consider these legal tussles over the issue:
* Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction, Diane Douglas, earlier this year, proposed removing all references to evolution from the state’s high school science curriculum and replacing them with terms like “change over time.” Douglas told a Phoenix TV station, “Evolution has been an ongoing debate for almost 100 years now. There is science to back up parts of it, but not all of it.”
The state’s science standards are currently being revised. The situation remains in flux, though it helps that Gov. Doug Ducey (R) has come out in favor of keeping evolution in them. A similar effort last year to water down evolution in state science standards in New Mexico collapsed – but only after public outcry.
* About three years ago, AU learned that a public school in Glendive, Mont., had been sending third-graders on a field trip to a local creationist attraction run by a Christian fundamentalist ministry. John Larsen, principal of the town’s elementary school, defended the trips, saying pupils were given “a different point of view than kids are exposed to in school.” (Yes, a false one!) The visits stopped after AU sent a sharply worded letter to education officials.
* Education officials in Petersburg, Ky., had been taking elementary school students on trips to Ken Ham’s Creation Museum as a reward for having perfect attendance, AU discovered in 2016. Legislators in the state have also proposed extending summer vacation in part so that more children would have the opportunity to visit Ham’s other attraction, the Noah’s Ark-themed Ark Encounter.
Mind you, this is just a sampling of stories from within the past few years. If you put words like “evolution” and “creationism” into AU’s web search engine, you’ll pull up many more stories going back years. I guarantee that some of the stuff you read will curl your hair.
It’s great that we win in court (although I worry that even that may start to slip if Brett Kavanaugh ends up on the Supreme Court), but the creationists are obviously not daunted by their legal losses. They aren’t going away, so you should not either.
America’s children deserve sound science education. As this new school year starts, vow to remain vigilant. And sign up for our emails so you can be alerted if AU is fighting attempts to introduce creationism in schools near you.