Public Schools

Happy 40th To The National Center For Science Education!

  Rob Boston

Americans United is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. It’s a milestone birthday, and we’ve been marking it with a new logo and tagline, a new website and new programs. We’re also honoring our past with a look back at important figures in the life of the organization.

But AU isn’t the only national organization with an important birthday this year. I was pleased to learn recently that our friends at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) are also celebrating in 2022 – the group is turning 40.

I remember the first time AU reached out to NCSE. An AU member in Missouri had contacted us because officials at a local public school didn’t seem to understand why teaching creationism was inappropriate. This was just a few years after the Supreme Court had handed down a landmark ruling in Edwards v. Aguillard, which invalidated a Louisiana law requiring public schools to offer “balanced treatment” between evolution and creationism.

AU’s attorneys patiently explained to officials at the school that what they were doing was of dubious legality. For whatever reason, we just weren’t making much headway. I was discussing the matter with our member on the phone when he made a suggestion. “It may be time,” he said, “to call Dr. Scott.”

I didn’t know who Dr. Scott was, so he filled me in: Eugenie C. Scott, a physical anthropologist, ran NCSE in California. This group of scientists, teachers, parents, religious leaders and others had formed in 1982 to oppose the Religious Right’s efforts to replace sound science education with biblical literalism.

I called Dr. Scott – Genie, as she likes to be called – and filled her in on what was going on. She brought NCSE into the discussion, and between the two of us, we managed to bring that recalcitrant school district around.

From there, our partnership – dare I say it? – evolved. At AU, we’re experts on separation of church and state, not science. When we needed scientific expertise, we knew we could call on NCSE. They had our backs every single time.

In 2005, NCSE was a key partner in one of our most important legal victories when we put an end to the teaching of “intelligent design” in the public schools of Dover, Pa. As part of a team that included Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Pepper Hamilton, NCSE helped the attorneys anticipate the creationists’ legal arguments and lined up expert witnesses who were willing to go on the stand and explain why intelligent design is not science.

Those experts were crucial to our victory. In his ruling against the Dover school board, Judge John E. Jones III made it clear that intelligent design is not science, observing, “[T]he fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.”

NCSE has worked with Americans United on many cases over the years. Genie retired from the group in 2014, and Ann Reid, a former research biologist at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, now serves as NCSE’s executive director. Genie is still very much in the fight, however, and just completed service on AU’s Board of Directors. (You can read her reflections on NCSE’s first 40 years here.)

Americans United is pleased to call NCSE an ally. Ours has been a fruitful and important partnership, and we look forward to continuing it for many years to come.

Happy anniversary, old friend!


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