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The Ohio Debate and the “No Religious Test” Clause of the U.S. Constitution

The Darwinist opponents of teaching fully about evolution in Ohio may be engaging in a form of religious discrimination. By lobbying for a repeal of the Ohio State Board of Education standards, not only are Ohio students presented with a dumbed-down version of evolution, but religious supporters of teaching the best science are subject to discrimination.

By focusing on the personal religious views of some supporters, the opponents have engaged in conduct that looks a lot like discrimination against a public official because of his or her religion. Such religious discrimination could be a violation of the often ignored Article VI, No Religious Test clause of the U.S. Constitution, or the parallel Ohio State Constitutional provision.

Article VI No Religious Test Clause

Article VI of the Constitution provides that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Ohio Constitution Section 1.07 creates a parallel right.

Though the Article IV No Religious Test clause has seldom been addressed by the courts, Francis Beckwith has recently written a scholarly article that examines how this Constitutional provision plays out in the field of teaching about evolution in public schools. As Beckwith’s paper points out, the history of this oft-ignored Constitutional provision was to guarantee that individuals with religious beliefs would not be excluded from political office because of their religion. Religious beliefs cannot be the basis for excluding individuals from the political process. To apply these ideas, Beckwith draws a key distinction between motive and purpose, which courts would do well to take into consideration. Beckwith’s paper argues persuasively that motives are a type of belief, and hence cannot be a basis for excluding individuals from the political process.

Beckwith’s framework, built around Article IV, has clear application to the politics surrounding the teaching of evolution in public schools.

Ohio Motive-Mongering is a Religious Test

As part of a motive-mongering campaign, some opponents of the Ohio standards have engaged in relentless personal attacks upon the drafters, while completely ignoring the peer-reviewed scientific literature cited to support the critical analysis standard. These attacks target personal motives and perceived beliefs of the science educators who worked on drafting the standards. The opponents cry out for appeal based on this attack, which looks a lot like an unconstitutional religious test.

The anti-religious attacks on the Ohio science standards claim that since some of the scientists and education experts who participated in the drafting, or supported, the standards might have motives or beliefs that are religious, the standards must be repealed. This creates a de facto religious test for anyone involved in managing the Ohio science standards. As one example, this discrimination clearly occurred in the attacks upon Dan Ely from Ohio State Board of Education Board Member Martha K. Wise at the February 14, 2006 meeting of the Ohio State Board of Education. According to this logic, those with particular religious beliefs cannot advocate for certain positions.

In this case the Ohio standards included a benchmark requiring students to be able to understand how scientists continue to critically analyze aspects of evolution. Then Ohio standards have secular scientific content and a public purpose to further science education and critical thinking. Compare this to the motive-mongering attacks against supports of the science standards, and the potential Constitutional problem comes out. By ignoring the clear scientific content of the standards and focusing on the personal motives and beliefs of some supporters, the critics have functionally excluded individuals from the policy process solely on the basis of their personal religion. This religious test for participating in politics is suspect.

Michael Francisco