The rather confusing “[e]volution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things” language proved a primary component in the undoing of the textbook sticker at issue in Selman v. Cobb County School District–decided yesterday in an opinion handed down by U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Cooper. Pessimism about the outcome peppered my previous post about this case (see here, where you can also find the sticker’s text). Yet, a genuine understanding of the case requires attention to the details of the Judge’s opinion, and it is important to keep in mind some of the most positive aspects of the ruling. (Important critiques of portions of the Judge’s opinion will follow in a subsequent posting, and strong exceptions to the School District attorney’s defense have been several times.)
In light of Judge Cooper’s decision, it remains constitutional for students to critically analyze aspects of chemical and biological evolutionary theories. As has long been maintained by the scientific community challenging aspects of chemical and biological evolutionary theories, the academic freedom of teachers and students to be able to learn about such scientific controversies and to critically analyze the evidence supporting those theories is of primary importance. This freedom was put at risk by the arguments made by the ACLU in the Cobb County case, but the judge ultimately rejected many of the ACLU’s most far-reaching claims.
Judge Cooper allowed that, in the context of education in biological and chemical evolutionary theories, there IS a secular purpose in promoting critical thinking. Most Americans are probably unaware that critical thinking is itself a contested issue these days, but the ACLU took exception to such critical thinking as one of its arguments to the Judge. Fortunately, the Judge didn’t take the ACLU up in this regard. In his opinion, the Judge states the following:
Fostering critical thinking is a clearly secular purpose for the Sticker, which the Court finds is not a sham; the Sticker appears to have the purpose of furthering critical thinking because it tells students to approach the material on evolution with an open mind, to study it carefully, and to give it critical consideration. (Judge’s Opinion, page 24.)
It’s hard to argue with that. Not that the ACLU didn’t try. They did. But they didn’t succeed in persuading the Judge.
While the Judge didn’t find that critical thinking was the primary purpose of this particular board in this particular case, the Judge’s recognition of such a purpose serves as a vindication of an important principle to a well-rounded education: critical thinking.
Towards this end, the Judge left untouched the Cobb County School Board’s policy on the teaching of origins, which calls for critical thinking and academic freedom concerning evolutionary theory. (See the policy here.) Judge Cooper noted: “Albeit relevant to the instant case, the policy and regulation are not the subject of Plaintiff’s challenge.” (Judge’s Opinion, pg 20.)
Judge Cooper also acknowledged and took no exception to the U.S. Supreme Court’s statement in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) that public school students could be required to learn “scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories.”
Furthermore, Judge Cooper referred to an amicus brief, submitted by scientists in the case, stating:
. . . the amicus brief filed by certain biologists and Georgia scientists indicates that there are some scientists who have question regarding aspects of evolutionary theory, and the informed, reasonable observer would be aware of this also. (Judge’s Opinion, pg 33.)
Finally, the judge made explicit that “the issue before the Court is not whether it is constitutionally permissible for public school teachers to teach intelligent design . . .” (Judge’s Opinion, pg 2.)
In the coming days, expect plenty of media stories with headlines reading: “science versus religion,” “fundamentalism versus reasonable people,” etc. But the whole truth of the matter is much more complex and nuanced. As Judge Cooper’s opinion notes, there is a scientific controversy over aspects of evolutionary theory and under the U.S. Constitution there are clear, secular reasons for encouraging students to think critically about it.
(For additional background information and our press releases concerning the case, read Rob Crowther’s recent blog post.)