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What’s Really Happening in Mississippi?

Casey Luskin

According to a recent news article, in Mississippi, a “New Law Allows for Creationism in the Classroom“. While this sounds like a believable headline, let’s find out if the facts bear it out.
According to the article, this is what the law actually says:

“No local school board, school superintendent or school principal shall prohibit a public school classroom teacher from discussing and answering questions from individual students on the origin of life.”

(“New Law Allows for Creationism in the Classroom“)

Hmmm… All I see is a law that permits students to ask any question they want and allows teacher to answer that question. There’s nothing about creationism. There’s not even anything about intelligent design. For all we know, if religious questions are brought up by students, teachers could simply say “That’s a religious question that isn’t appropriate for discussion in a science classroom.” Or for all we know, religious questions about philosophical materialism supporting some atheistic worldview could be asked under this law.

All we really can see is that this law will protect the right of students to ask any questions about the “origin of life.” Their freedom to ask any of the following questions would presumably be protected by this bill:

  • Why is it that the National Academy of Sciences writes in its politically charged booklet that “many pathways might have been followed to produce the first cells” while the late Nobel prize winning biochemist Dr. Francis Crick wrote “”The origin of life appears to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to be satisfied to get it going”?
  • When the famous 20th century evolutionary biologist George Gaylord Simpson wrote “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind,” does that mean that under the theories put forth by my textbook, that I am the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have me in mind?
  • Why does my textbook claim that the Miller-Urey experiment simulated conditions on the early Earth when it is well-known that the experiment used a reducing mixture of methane and ammonia gasses, an atmosphere not thought to have existed on the early earth?
  • Why does my textbook claim that the diversity of life evolved primarily due to mutations and natural selection when the leading biologist Lynn Margulis recently said that “new mutations don’t create new species; they create offspring that are impaired”?

Foes of academic freedom and objectivity might not want students to be able to ask questions like these. Such foes will claim this law will bring creationism into the classroom because students can now ask questions about creationism. But if they are right, then it should be noted that facially speaking, this law protects the right of any student to ask any question–even if it explicitly supported philosophical naturalism or atheism. I don’t really see what such critics would have to complain about. Added later on 5/9/06: And this law gives no license to violate the Establishment Clause, so any discussions about creationism would have to take place in a fashion that did not establish religion.

Facially, this law simply protects the right of teachers to do something which some case law has protected for some time. Under Moore v. Gaston County Board of Education, 357 F. Supp. 1037 (W.D.N.C. 1973), if students inquire about a teacher’s personal views on biological origins, the teacher may answer honestly without worry of advancing religion. In this case, students asked student teacher George Moore about his views about evolution, God, and religion. Moore replied that he believed in Darwin’s theory was viable and that religiously he was an agnostic. After a series of complaints to the principal, Moore was dismissed from his student teaching position. Noting that the state has a “vital interest in protecting the impressionable minds of its young people from any form of extreme propagandism in the classroom,” the district court upheld Mr. Moore’s right to freedom of expression because preventing teachers from answering students’ questions would “cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.” Under this case, teachers may answer questions from students, even if they go to an issue as personal as the viewpoint of the teacher.

In Moore, a federal district court strongly upheld the right of teachers to encourage full scientific inquiry, even when it conflicts with the “orthodoxy”:

“The effect that this stifling of scientific inquiry, under the theory of “heresy,” had upon the technological and scientific development of Italy and Spain is well known; it was through Newton and others in Britain and Northern Europe that the ensuing advancements of systematic scientific learning took place.”

(Moore v. Gaston County Board of Education, 357 F. Supp. 1037, 1043 (W.D.N.C. 1973))

And the court even concluded that teachers must have the right to answer hard questions about evolution even if they conflict with the religious beliefs of some community members:

“To discharge a teacher without warning because his answers to scientific and theological questions do not fit the notions of the local parents and teachers is a violation of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. It is “an establishment of religion,” the official approval of local orthodoxy, and a violation of the Constitution. Most people do not attend college. Many do not finish high school. To forbid discussions of scientific subjects like Darwin’s theory of evolution on “religious” grounds is simply to postpone the education of those children until after they get out of school. If a teacher has to answer searching, honest questions only in terms of the lowest common denominator of the professed beliefs of those parents who complain the loudest, this means that the state through the public schools is impressing the particular religious orthodoxy of those parents upon the religious and scientific education of the children by force of law. The prohibition against the establishment of religion must not be thus distorted and thwarted.”

(Moore v. Gaston County Board of Education, 357 F. Supp. 1037, 1043 (W.D.N.C. 1973))

Mississippi has merely protected the right of teachers to not fear for losing their jobs if they answer questions from students which may critique or support Neo-Darwinian thought. Teachers do not have absolute freedom of speech when they are acting as agents of a public school, and thus they still should not establish religion through their statements under any circumstances. Thus while I cannot predict if someone will apply this law inappropriately, it clearly is constitutional on its face. As with allegations against the constitutionality of policies requiring critical analysis of evolution, the proof will be in the Darwinist pudding when there is no lawsuit filed against this law.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.