Last month, we marked the 50th anniversary of Epperson v. Arkansas, an important Supreme Court ruling dealing with the right of students in public schools to learn modern science without interference by religious groups.
In Epperson, the high court invalidated an Arkansas law that banned the teaching of evolution in the state’s public schools. Although the measure was only being sporadically enforced, biology teacher Susan Epperson didn’t want to risk going to jail for teaching her pupils modern science. She challenged the law in court and won. (See “She Stood For Science,” November 2018 Church & State.)
The Arkansas law had its roots in conservative religious groups that opposed evolution because, they argued, it conflicted with the Bible’s account of humankind’s origins.
Fifty years have passed; one would think we would be more enlightened. Sadly, that’s not the case. While no state would be foolish enough to pass a law prohibiting instruction about evolution, several have tried other tactics to undermine the principle. Legislators have introduced laws demanding that the alleged “weaknesses” of evolution be taught, promoted so-called “academic freedom” bills and pushed “intelligent design.”
These tactics don’t just violate the separation of church and state; they also do a disservice to our young people. Students who don’t get a proper grounding in modern biology will be at a disadvantage at most secular universities. They may even need remedial education. If they fail to catch up, students could find entire career paths closed off to them.
Americans are free to believe whatever they want about our origins. But when fundamentalist religious beliefs attempt to masquerade as science, we must all be concerned. Whether fundamentalists acknowledge it or not, evolution is the cornerstone of many sciences. When we teach it in public school science classes, we not only respect the First Amendment, we also do our young people a big favor.