May a teacher answer questions from students about her personal religious beliefs or her beliefs on Darwin’s theory of evolution? That’s the issue addressed in Moore v. Gaston County Board of Education, where a lower federal court found it legal for a agnostic teacher who supported evolution to express his views in response to student questions about what he believed. Would a teacher who doubts Darwinism also be granted the academic freedom to openly answer student questions about whether she finds evolutionary biology persuasive?
A student teacher, George Moore, sued the Gaston County School District in North Carolina after being dismissed because he supported evolution in class by giving “unorthodox answers to student questions (derived from the day’s lesson text) about creation, evolution, immortality, and the nature and existence of God”55 while substitute teaching for a seventh grade history class. A student had asked Moore if he “believed that man descended from monkeys”56 and Moore affirmed his support for Darwin’s theory of evolution. The students then asked Moore whether he believed in Adam and Eve, whether he thought the Bible should be taken literally, if he believed in an afterlife, and other questions about the Bible.57 Moore replied that he was agnostic towards religion and was subsequently relieved of his teaching duties.58 Moore brought suit arguing that his in-class statements were given merely in response to student questions.59 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 Moore’s right to freedom of expression to answer the students’ questions.60 The court held that it was appropriate to side with Moore because preventing teachers from answering such questions from students would “cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.”61
2. Importance and Commentary
Under Moore, if students inquire about a teacher’s personal views on biological origins, the teacher may answer honestly without worry of advancing religion. Of course, Moore’s holding applies not only to teachers that support Darwinian evolution, but also to those who dissent from Darwin’s theory. As the district court found:
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. 62
Thus, when students inquire about a teacher’s views on evolution, under Moore that teacher may answer those questions regardless of whether she supports Darwinism, or dissents from Darwinian evolution. Moore also has implications for teachers that want to teach their own unorthodox viewpoints in the classroom. The court decried the fact that “[r]eligious or scientific dogma supported by the power of the state has historically brought threat to liberty, and often death to the unorthodox”63 and balanced teacher academic freedom against a desire to “protect the impressionable minds of its young people from any form of extreme propagandism in the classroom.”64 Also balanced against academic freedom was a need to preserve order in the classroom and prevent disruption. 65 Teacher freedom of speech was supported by the court’s finding that “the Supreme Court has on numerous occasions emphasized that the right to teach, to inquire, to evaluate and to study is fundamental to a democratic society.”66 Such findings could support the academic freedom of teachers to teach scientific viewpoints that dissent from neo-Darwinism, provided that they are presented in an objective, nonpropogandistic fashion which does not disrupt the normal curriculum. Moore stands for the protection of such teacher academic freedom even when the teacher is presenting “unorthodox” views.
Finally, the court was troubled by the district’s lack of standards for teacher speech.67 The court found that the teacher “had the right not to be relieved of his teaching opportunity for unconstitutional reasons.”68 This implies that teachers have constitutionally protected freedom to express criticisms of neo-Darwinism in response to student questions without fear of losing their jobs. It also implies that there may be legitimate grounds to protect teacher freedom of speech to teach scientific viewpoints that may be considered “unorthodox.”
[Editor’s Note: This survey of Moore v. Gaston County Bd. of Educ, is an excerpt from the article “Does Challenging Darwin Create Constitutional Jeopardy? A Comprehensive Survey of Case Law Regarding the Teaching of Biological Origins,” Hamline University Law Review, Vol. 32(1):1-64 (Winter, 2009), published by Hamline University School of Law. This excerpt covers the case Gaston v. Gaston County Bd. of Educ.; the full article can be read here.]
[55.] Moore v. Gaston County Bd. of Educ., 357 F. Supp. 1037 (W.D.N.C. 1973) at 1037.
[56.] Id. at 1038.
[58.] Id. at 1038-39.
[60.] Moore, 357 F. Supp. at 1040.
[61.] Id. at 1040 (citing Keyishian v. Bd. of Regents, 385 U.S. 589, 603 (1967)).
[62.] Id. at 1043.
[63.] Id. at 1042.
[64.] Id. at 1040.
[65.] Id. (“[Any] conduct . . . in class or out of it, which for any reason–whether it stems from time, place or type of behavior–materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others is, of course, not immunized by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.”) (quoting Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 513 (1969)).
[66.] Moore, 357 F. Supp. at 1039-1040.
[67.] Id. at 1040-1041.