When is an admission not an admission? University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has had a lot to say over the past year about Indiana’s Ball State University and its handling of the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s complaint that one of Ball State’s science professors, Eric Hedin, was supposedly teaching religion as science in a science class.
That’s a long sentence. But you’ve got to read it and digest it in order to understand what Coyne means by his latest claim on the beef at Ball State:
This is an explicit admission by the Discovery Institute that Intelligent Design (ID) is a religious point of view, for "bashing it" is "tantamount" to being "anti-religious." That’s an admission that they’ve avoided making, as they claim that ID is not religion, but pure science.
What’s Coyne talking about? Well, he’s interpreting the following line, offered by John West of Discovery Institute, and printed in a story in the Muncie Star Press on the Ball State matter:
We determined through public documents one science class is covering intelligent design in order to bash it. If they allow that, it’s tantamount to state endorsement of an anti-religious view.
Is Coyne right? Is this an admission from Discovery Institute that intelligent design is religion? No, it is not. Why not? Because, in short, the case law on the establishment clause of the First Amendment (which covers the area of life we’re talking about now) generally looks to the state actor’s (e.g., BSU administration) motive and purpose for acting as they act.
So, for example, if BSU administrators want to offer a course bashing intelligent design because they believe it is religion, and because they are hostile to religion, then that motivation when put into effect might constitute to a reasonable observer (e.g., a hypothetical student in the class, as determined by a court) state endorsement of anti-religion, which in turn arguably constitutes a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
That is, the law that governs this area of life cares about what’s going on inside the minds of state employees when they do what they do. In this case, it does not care whether intelligent design really is religion, as Coyne seems to think. It, again, only cares what state employees think it is, particularly when that thinking is part of state employees’ motive or purpose for, say, promoting or bashing religion on state property using state resources.
Yes, this stuff can get pretty esoteric. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. But at least now you know a little more about what’s going on, at least from a legal standpoint. For some perspective on how the "explicit admission" came about, it’s best to let John West speak for himself. He tells me:
Although the reporter generally quoted me accurately in the article, in this particular instance he left out some important context. I made clear that I was focusing on BSU’s claim that intelligent design is religion. My argument was that if this is BSU’s claim, then BSU has to be consistent in how it applies its view when it comes to regulating speech of its faculty. If, according to BSU, endorsing intelligent design is tantamount to endorsing religion, then according to BSU’s own standard, attacking intelligent design would be tantamount to attacking religion. My point is that BSU can’t have it both ways.
Additional perspective from other folks changes the color of things, doesn’t it?