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How have courts ruled on creationism and intelligent design?

David H. Bailey
Updated 27 August 2022 (c) 2022

There have been three major court cases in the United States testing whether creationist or intelligent design material may be taught or promoted in public schools. Here is a brief summary of each case, and an overview of the decisions. For full details, see the references to the actual court decisions at the end.

McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education

This U.S. District Court case stemmed from a 1981 law signed by the Governor of Arkansas entitled "Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act." This law mandated that "Public schools within this State shall give balanced treatment to creation-science and to evolution-science." Several groups filed suit, on three grounds: (a) violation of the first amendment (that the government may not prohibit or favor specific religions); (b) violation of a right to academic freedom under the free speech clause of the first amendment, and (c) that the Act was impermissibly vague. Among the plaintiffs, in addition to parents and teacher organizations, were clergy of the United Methodist, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, African Methodist Episcopal Churches, Presbyterian, and Southern Baptist denominations. In addition, 72 Nobel prize-winning scientists and numerous scientific organizations filed court briefs describing creation science as a religious, not a scientific, movement.

The judge found that the law did indeed violate separation of church and state. He based his decision on what is known as the "Lemon" test, named after a 1971 court decision: "First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion ... ; finally, the statute must not foster 'an excessive government entanglement with religion.'" The judge found that "creation science" is characterized by belief in:

  1. Sudden creation of the universe, energy, and life from nothing;
  2. The insufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about development of all living kinds from a single organism;
  3. Changes only within fixed limits of originally created kinds of plants and animals;
  4. Separate ancestry for man and apes;
  5. Explanation of the earth's geology by catastrophism, including the occurrence of a worldwide flood; and
  6. A relatively recent inception of the earth and living kinds.
Based on expert testimony, Judge Overton concluded that "creation science" is "simply not science," and instead is undeniably a religious notion promoted by certain fundamentalist movements. Thus, Overton ruled, "The Act therefore fails both the first and second portions of the test in Lemon v. Kurtzman." [Overton1982].

Edwards v. Aguillard

In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a Louisiana "Creationism Act," which prohibited the teaching of the theory of evolution in public elementary and secondary schools unless accompanied by instruction in the theory of "creation science."

In its decision, the Supreme Court struck down the law. They ruled [Supreme1987]:

The Act is facially invalid as violative of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, because it lacks a clear secular purpose. ... The Act does not further its stated secular purpose of "protecting academic freedom." It does not enhance the freedom of teachers to teach what they choose and fails to further the goal of "teaching all of the evidence." ... The Act impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind.

Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District

This U.S. District case arose after the Dover [Pennsylvania] School of Directors passed a resolution stating "Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of Life is not taught." Subsequently the School District announced that teachers would be required to read the following statement to their biology classes [Lebo2008, pg. 62]:
The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin's Theory of Evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.
Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.
Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.
With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families. As a Standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on Standards-based assessments.

In the wake of these actions, a group of parents filed suit, and a widely publicized trial was held.

In his strongly-worded decision, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones struck down the school district's actions, characterized intelligent design (ID) as not science, emphasized that evolutionary theory is in no way antithetical to religion, and castigated the Dover School Board for its divisive and deceptive tactics (here "ID" is an acronym for "intelligent design") [Jones2005, pg. 136-138]:

The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board's ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.
Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs' scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.
To be sure, Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the 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.
The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.
With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.
Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board's decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.