May 2021 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

The Arkansas House of Representatives voted 72-21 on April 7 in favor of a bill that allows public schools to teach creationism alongside evolution.

The measure, sponsored by state Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville), will now go to the state Senate.

Laws that promoted so-called “balanced treatment” between evolution and creationism in public schools were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987’s Edwards v. Aguillard case from Louisiana. During debate in the Arkansas House, Bentley insisted that the high court might be ready to change its mind.

Bentley also asserted that scientists have been debating evolution vs. creationism for “thousands of years.” In fact, evolution is overwhelmingly accepted in the scientific community. And Charles Darwin didn’t publish his theory until 1859, so thousands of years of debate is impossible.

Experts warned that the bill would harm science education in the state.

“This just really does not belong in a science class,” Rene A. Shroat-Lewis, a professor of paleontology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, told KATV, a television station in Little Rock. “If we think about the definition of science, science requires that you have evidence and also that you are able to test in order to be able to figure out that evidence. So unfortunately, we are not able to test whether or not there is a higher being of any sort.”

Arkansas has a long track record of trying to subvert the teaching of evolution in public schools. In 1928, voters made it illegal for any public school teacher in the state to “teach the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals.” Teachers who broke the law could be fined $500, a hefty sum in those days.

A science teacher named Susan Epperson challenged the law in 1965, and a few years later the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated it in 1968’s Epperson v. Arkansas ruling. (See “She Stood For Science,” Nov­ember 2018 Church & State.)

In 1981, Arkansas legislators pas­sed a state law called the “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act,” which mandated the teaching of “creation science” alongside evolution in the state’s public schools. The following year, a federal court struck down the law in the case McLean v. Arkansas.