Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987)

This case is part of the ongoing cultural struggle over teaching evolution in public schools that began with the 1925 Scopes trial. The issue previously had come before the U.S. Supreme Court in Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), and continues to be a point of controversy in American life.

In Edwards v. Aguillard, the Court dealt with a 1981 Louisiana statute that prohibited ‘‘the teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools unless accompanied by instruction in ‘creation science.’’’ Although no school was obligated to teach creation science or evolution, if one was taught, the other had to be taught as well. In a seven-to-two decision, the Court held that the statute violated the Establishment Clause.

The Court assessed the statute under the first prong of the three-prong test Lemon test: ‘‘[T]he statute must have a secular legislative purpose.’’ It evaluated several secular purposes claimed by Louisiana, concluding that none were convincing. It is rare that a court finds a statute in violation of Lemon’s first prong. For virtually all statutes that have failed the second prong, a statute’s ‘‘principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion.’’

The Court first evaluated the state’s claim that the statute was intended to protect academic freedom. After agreeing with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that ‘‘the Act was not designed to further’’ academic freedom, the Court rejected the state’s claim in oral argument that the legislature intended to protect academic freedom by requiring a fair and balanced and more comprehensive science curriculum even though it ‘‘may not [have] use[d] the terms ‘academic freedom’ in the correct legal sense.’’ But even if that were true, the Court argued, the statute’s construction was not tailored to accomplish this goal, since the statute in fact limited the curriculum and a teacher’s academic freedom by forbidding instruction in evolution unless creation science was offered. Citing the statute’s legislative history, including public comments by the statute’s sponsor that he would have preferred that neither creationism nor evolution be taught, the Court concluded that the secular purpose claimed by the state was a sham.

The Court, agreeing with the Fifth Circuit, held that the statute’s requirements—including the production of curriculum guides only for creationism, prohibition of discrimination only against creationists, and acquiring of resources and advice only from creation scientists—had the ‘‘purpose of discrediting ‘evolution by counterbalancing its teaching at every turn with the teaching of creationism . . . .’ ’’ Thus, the statute did not advance fairness, as the state argued.

The Court also held that the statute’s purpose was to advance a particular religious viewpoint, the Genesis account of creation. The Court looked at the ‘‘historic and contemporaneous link between the teachings of certain religious denominations and the teaching of evolution.’’ According to the Court, the legislative history ‘‘reveals that the term ‘creation science,’ as contemplated by the legislature that adopted this Act, embodies the religious belief that a supernatural creator was responsible for the creation of humankind.’’ Also, the statute and its sponsor targeted one theory, evolution, which some citizens, including the statute’s sponsor, believe is hostile to their religious faith. But the Constitution ‘‘‘forbids alike the preference of a religious doctrine or the prohibition of a theory which is deemed antagonistic to a particular dogma.’’’

Edwards is an important case because it contains a standard that courts may use to assess a statute that requires a public school science curriculum on the topic of origins: (1) the statute’s historical continuity with the creation/evolution battles throughout the twentieth century; (2) how closely the curricular content required by the statute parallels the creation story in Genesis, and/or whether the curricular content prohibited or regulated by the statute is treated as such because it is inconsistent with the creation story in Genesis; (3) the motives of those who support the statute in the legislature; and (4) whether the statute is a legitimate means to achieve appropriate state ends.

The only dissenting opinion was penned by Justice Antonin Scalia (joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist). Among Scalia’s many comments is his criticism of the Court’s ‘‘religious motive test’’ to determine a statute’s purpose. He argues that legislative motive, even if it is religious, is not the same as the actual purpose of the statute, which may be secular. Scalia also points out that legislators may support the same legislation for a variety of motives, and that ‘‘political activism by the religiously motivated is part of our heritage,’’ which includes feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless.

Because the Court stated that its opinion did ‘‘not imply that the legislature could never require that scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories be taught,’’ Edwards does not exclude the teaching of scientific views that are critical of evolution but that are not based exclusively on the authority of religious writings.

FRANCIS J. BECKWITH

References and Further Reading

  • Beckwith, Francis J. Law, Darwinism & Public Education: The Establishment Clause and the Challenge of creationism-and-intelligent-design.html">Intelligent Design. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
  • Campbell, John A., and Stephen C. Meyer, eds. Darwinism, Design, and Public Education. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2003.
  • Carter, Stephen L., Evolutionism, Creationism, and Teaching Religion as a Hobby, Duke Law Journal 1987 (1987): 977.
  • Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Facsimile of the 1st edition (1859), with introd. by Ernst Mayr. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.
  • Dembski, William A., and Michael Ruse, eds. Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Greenawalt, Kent, Establishing Religious Ideas: Evolution, Creationism, and creationism-and-intelligent-design.html">Intelligent Design, Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy 17 (2003): 2:321–97.
  • Johnson, Phillip E. Darwin on Trial. Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1991.
  • Miller, Kenneth R. Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. New York: Cliff Street Books, 1999.
  • Numbers, Ronald. Darwinism in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Pennock, Robert T., ed. creationism-and-intelligent-design.html">Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.
  • Ruse, Michael. The Evolution Wars: A Guide to the Debates. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2000.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution- Science in Public School Instruction. La. Rev. Stat. Ann. sec. 17:286.1–17:286.7 (West 1982)
  • Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968)
  • Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 613 (1971)

See also Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968); Lemon Test; Scopes Trial; Teaching ‘‘Creation Science’’ in Public Schools; Teaching Evolution in Public Schools

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