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Wright v. Houston: It’s Not Illegal To Teach the Evidence Supporting Evolution

Casey Luskin

The case Wright v. Houston was decided by the lowest level of the federal courts in 1973, and it effectively ruled that it is not illegal to teach just the evidence supporting evolution. This is one case in a line of cases that found that teaching evolution does not violate the Establishment Clause.

1. Summary
Students in the Houston Independent School District sued their district and the Texas State Board of Education for teaching evolution but not including any other views about origins, such as the Biblical story of creation.43 The student-plaintiffs contended that the study of evolution constituted the establishment of a sectarian, atheistic religion and inhibited the free exercise of their own religion in violation of the First Amendment.44 As a remedy for the alleged constitutional violation, the students asked that the Biblical story of creation be required to be taught alongside evolution.45 The district court held that the school district’s one-sided teaching of only the pro-Darwinian scientific evidence was constitutional.46 Specifically, the court found that the curriculum did not violate Epperson’s mandate that public schools “may not be hostile to any religion”47 for two reasons: (1) there was no State law or school district regulation which prohibited nonevolutionary teachings, and (2) there was no evidence to suggest that students could not challenge the theory of evolution in class.48 The court thus let the curriculum stand without ordering any changes.49

2. Importance and Commentary
This case is one of many that found that the teaching of evolution does not establish religion or offend the First Amendment. However, this lesser-known case provides a rare example of candid acknowledgement from the judiciary that “[s]cience and religion necessarily deal with many of the same questions, and they may frequently provide conflicting answers.”50 Although the court rightly found that the proper solution is not to avoid the subject of origins altogether,51 it admitted that it was “hardly qualified to select from among the available theories those which merit attention in a biology school class.”52 Moreover, the court found no constitutional problems with teaching only the pro-Darwin scientific evidence, stating “it is not the business of government to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine.”53 At the very least, this implies that school districts may express sensitivity to the anti-religious implications of evolution in their policies on teaching evolution, just as this court did.

[Editor’s Note: This survey of Wright v. Houston Ind. Sch. Dist. 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 Wright v. Houston Ind. Sch. Dist.; the full article can be read here.]

References Cited
[43.] Wright v. Houston Indep. Sch. Dist., 366 F. Supp. 1208 (S.D. Tex. 1972) at 1208.
[44.] Id. at 1209.
[45.] Id. at 1211.
[46.] Id. at 1212-13.
[47.] Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 103-04 (1968).
[48.] Wright, 366 F. Supp. at 1210.
[49.] Id. at 1212-1213.
[50.] Id. at 1211.
[51.] Id. “Avoidance of any reference to the subject of human origins is, indeed, a
decidedly totalitarian approach to the problem presented here. Book-burning is always
dangerous, but never more dangerous than when practiced on behalf of young and
impressionable minds.” Id.
[52.] Id.
[53.] Wright, 366 F. Supp. at 1211 (citing Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495, 505 (1952)).


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.