Last month the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard oral arguments on Jeanne Caldwell’s appeal from the District Court’s dismissal of her lawsuit against the University of California and the National Science Foundation regarding religious statements made on the University of California’s “Understanding Evolution” website. (Full disclosure: Jeanne Caldwell is my wife.) The website, which is programmed and hosted by the University of California in conjunction with the National Center for Science Education, was created with over $500,000 in financial support from the National Science Foundation. The District Court had dismissed Jeanne Caldwell’s lawsuit on the basis of her alleged lack of standing to bring the action. The District Court’s ruling, if upheld on appeal, would essentially render the internet an “Establishment Clause-free zone” by barring citizens from suing to stop a governmental endorsement of religion that occurs on the internet. The District Court did not reach the merits of Jeanne Caldwell’s Establishment Clause claim.
The key part of the UE website targeted by Jeanne Caldwell’s lawsuit is a webpage titled, “Misconception: Evolution and religion are incompatible,” in which the UC gives K-12 teachers suggested responses to students in their classroom who ask whether evolution is inconsistent with their personal religious beliefs. Prior to the announcement of the lawsuit in the media, the UC religious response webpage read:
Response: Religion and science (evolution) are very different things. In science (as in science class), only natural causes are used to explain natural phenomena, while religion deals with beliefs that are beyond the natural world. The misconception that one has to choose between science and religion is divisive. Most Christian and Jewish religious groups have no conflict with the theory of evolution or other scientific findings. In fact, many religious people, including theologians, feel that a deeper understanding of nature actually enriches their faith. Moreover, in the scientific community there are thousands of scientists who are devoutly religious and also accept evolution. (Emphasis added.)
After Jeanne Caldwell’s lawsuit against the University of California over the UE website was reported in the media, the UC revised its religious response webpage to read:
Response: Religion and science (evolution) are very different things. In science, only natural causes are used to explain natural phenomena, while religion deals with beliefs that are beyond the natural world. The misconception that one always has to choose between science and religion is incorrect. Of course, some religious beliefs explicitly contradict science (e.g., the belief that the world and all life on it was created in six literal days); however, most religious groups have no conflict with the theory of evolution or other scientific findings. In fact, many religious people, including theologians, feel that a deeper understanding of nature actually enriches their faith. Moreover, in the scientific community there are thousands of scientists who are devoutly religious and also accept evolution. (Emphasis added.)
Both versions of the religion webpage include a link to doctrinal statements by seventeen religious denominations and groups endorsing evolutionary theory on a webpage hosted by the National Center for Science Education. A statement by the United Church of Christ, for example, declares that evolution is consistent with “the revelation and presence of… God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.” The UC religious response webpage does not link to doctrinal statements by any religious groups that hold that evolution is inconsistent with their religious beliefs.
Kevin Snider of the Pacific Justice Institute argued the case at oral argument on behalf of Jeanne Caldwell. Mr. Snider pointed out that the UC’s religious response webpage, with its link to seventeen denominational statements on evolution, amounts to the State of California endorsing and disseminating religious materials in violation of the Establishment Clause.
Some Darwinist apologists have attempted to justify the UC’s religious response webpage by claiming that it merely “describes” rather than “endorses” religious viewpoints on evolution. However, at oral argument, this was not the UC’s position at all. Rather, the UC defended its right to engage in religious propagation, as long as it does so in the context of a supposedly secular enterprise.
Two members of the three-judge panel hearing the appeal asked William Carroll, the attorney for the UC, whether the UC takes a position on religion on its religious response webpage. Mr. Carroll never did answer the question directly, even after Circuit Judge Betty Fletcher described that question as the “critical” question in the case Instead, Mr. Carroll side-stepped her question by arguing that the UC’s defense on the merits of the Establishment Clause claim is that the Court should consider the UC’s religious response webpage in the context of the website as a whole.
Mr. Carroll’s indirect answer to the court’s key question was a tacit admission that the UC indeed takes a position on religion on its religious response webpage. Notably, Mr. Carroll did not argue the fallback position that the UC’s religious response webpage purportedly only describes religious positions rather than endorsing them.
So why would the UC stake out the more aggressive position that it has the right under the Establishment Clause to engage in religious advocacy as long as it is buried within a larger secular enterprise? One possible explanation is that Mr. Carroll did not think he could sell the court on the premise that the UC religious response page merely describes rather than endorses a religious position. Another possible explanation is that the UC does not want to be limited to merely describing various religious viewpoints on evolution; it wants to be able to advocate particular religious doctrine on evolution.
After all, according to the NCSE and UC’s grant application to the National Science Foundation, one of their primary purposes in establishing the UE website was to combat the alleged “influence of a minority of vocal Christian fundamentalists throughout the country” on biology curricula and instructional materials. Of course, pinning the reasons people don’t support evolution solely on a religious group marginalized from the mainstream is purposefully misleading. People from varied religious backgrounds (or no religious background, for that matter) dispute evolution on scientific grounds. And this includes the majority of Americans. In 2004, a poll showed that only 13% of Americans believe that humans developed through purely natural evolutionary processes. It is impossible that the other 87% are “a minority of vocal Christian fundamentalists.”
Unwilling or unable to defend evolution on scientific grounds, the UC and NCSE have apparently concluded that their best option is to address any religious objections to the theory by proactively re-engineering the religious beliefs of children. In particular, the UC seeks to replace school children’s belief in traditional Christianity, and its Creation story, with belief in a Christian theology that embraces a Darwinist creation story. And the UC and NCSE seek to achieve this goal in K-12 biology classes.
It turns out the people who always claim to want to keep religion out of science actually want to convert our children’s biology classes into Darwinian Sunday School classes.