In Utah, there is a bill in front of the state legislature to require teachers to to offer a disclaimer when teaching evolution. That disclaimer would state that A) not all scientists agree on the theory of evolution and B) the state does not endorse the theory of evolution. In Michigan, there is a bill that would encourage “critical thinking” about scientific theories, but it singles out evolution and global warming as the only two theories mentioned for such treatment. This appears to be the next phase of the ID movement’s legal and political strategy.
It should be obvious to any scientifically literate person that singling out any particular theory to mention that not all scientists agree on it is absurd. If you’re going to point out such an obvious fact, why single out evolution? There is no scientific theory – absolutely none – on which all scientists agree. Even something as basic as whether the earth goes around the sun, a subject settled some 500 years ago, continues to have detractors. So why single out evolution when the same statement could be made about every single scientific theory in existenc? Because evolution is viewed as conflicting with particular religious points of view. And that’s the only reason.
What I’d like to note, however, is that this may not work as a legal strategy either. In fact, there is Supreme Court precedent to suggest that singling out evolution and treating it differently from other well accepted scientific theories in order to protect the religious views of a segment of society from views that they deem as conflicting with those views is, in and of itself, an establishment clause problem. This is particularly true when the court is able to see the clear religious purpose of the passage of such laws.
For instance, Epperson v. Arkansas, the 1968 Supreme Court ruling that overturned state laws banning the teaching of evolution, says:
It is of no moment whether the law is deemed to prohibit mention of Darwin’s theory, or to forbid any or all of the infinite varieties of communication embraced within the term “teaching.” Under either interpretation, the law must be stricken because of its conflict with the constitutional prohibition of state laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The overriding fact is that Arkansas’ law selects from the body of knowledge a particular segment which it proscribes for the sole reason that it is deemed to conflict with a particular religious doctrine; that is, with a particular interpretation of the Book of Genesis by a particular religious group.
Clearly, then, the court considered the key fact in the case to be the singling out of evolution for special treatment for the purpose of appeasing a particular religious group that viewed evolution as conflicting with the tenets of their faith. Indeed, in the syllabus for the decision the single factual basis for the decision that was listed was the fact that “The sole reason for the Arkansas law is that a particular religious group considers the evolution theory to conflict with the account of the origin of man set forth in the Book of Genesis.” The court further stated:
There is and can be no doubt that the First Amendment does not permit the State to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma…
In the present case, there can be no doubt that Arkansas has sought to prevent its teachers from discussing the theory of evolution because it is contrary to the belief of some that the Book of Genesis must be the exclusive source of doctrine as to the origin of man. No suggestion has been made that Arkansas law may be justified by considerations of state policy other than the religious views of some of its citizens. It is clear that fundamentalist sectarian conviction was and is the law’s reason for existence. Its antecedent, Tennessee’s “monkey law,” candidly stated its purpose: to make it unlawful “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Perhaps the sensational publicity attendant upon the Scopes trial induced Arkansas to adopt less explicit language. It eliminated Tennessee’s reference to “the story of the Divine Creation of man” as taught in the Bible, but there is no doubt that the motivation for the law was the same: to suppress the teaching of a theory which, it was thought, “denied” the divine creation of man.
Clearly, then, this precedent strongly rules out a policy that singles out the theory of evolution for special treatment, such as prohibitions and disclaimers that could with equal legitimacy be applied to any theory in science, for the purpose of appeasing the religious sensibilities of some portion of the population. Just as clearly, the mere fact that the text of the law does not explicitly mention that as a motivation does not insulate the law from this analysis.
Given the fact that the Utah bill was passed in the Senate on Friday in a debate dominated by statement after statement from legislators saying that the bill was necessary in order to take a stand for “God’s creation” and the like, there is little doubt what the real motivations were. And this is always a problem for the ID movement. No matter how much they purge the text of bills of religious language, and no matter how carefully they try and frame the issue as one of “science v science”, the legislators who vote for such bills are motivated either by their own religious views or the political desire to appeal to the religious views of others.
The legislative debate on such bills inevitably involves legislators invoking the name of God because doing so is good politics. A legislator wants to be seen as standing up for God and for the religious views of his constituents against “godless evolution”, and so he makes statements that best strike that pose for maximum effect. Thankfully, what is good political strategy for the individual politician is bad legal strategy for the anti-evolution forces and leaves no doubt, when a court examines the legislative history of a bill, what the real motivation is.