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If Evolution Has Implications for Religion, Can We Justify Teaching It in Public Schools?


In my recent article on the constitutionality of teaching evolution, I discussed how courts have found that it is legal to teach evolution in public schools. Evolutionary biology is a science, so it can be legally taught in public schools when it’s treated as a science and isn’t promoted as a support for atheism or materialism.

That said, few would deny that Darwinian evolution has larger implications that aren’t friendly to theism. Even if those are not discussed in a public school science classroom, and the conversation focuses strictly on the science, the implications are still there. Do the larger religious (or anti-religious) implications of a scientific theory make it inadmissible for instruction in public schools? They shouldn’t.

Sometimes when courts have declared the teaching of evolution to be legal, they have shown great insensitivity to the fact that it impinges upon the religious views of many Americans. However, just because we’re declaring the teaching of evolution to be constitutional doesn’t mean that it has no connections to religion. Thus, while it may sound odd to hear that we can (sometimes) declare something constitutional to teach in public schools even though it touches upon religion, there’s good legal precedent for such a finding.

According to the Lemon test, a government policy establishes religion if its “principal or primary effect” is one that “advances or inhibits” religion. Here’s the full test as it was originally stated:

First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.

(Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-613 (1971) (emphasis added) (internal citations and quotations omitted).)

Under the second part of this test, a government policy is unconstitutional if it has a “primary” or “principal” effect that advances (or inhibits) religion. However, in light of this second part, the Supreme Court has also developed a legal doctrine called the “incidental effects” or “secondary effects” doctrine which says that government law or policy may have “secondary” or “incidental” effects that touch upon religion and not violate the Establishment Clause. Secondary effects that touch upon religion are not constitutionally fatal.

For example, the Court held in Lynch v. Donnelly that “not every law that confers an indirect, remote, or incidental benefit upon [religion] is, for that reason alone, constitutionally invalid” (465 U.S. 668, 683 (1984), citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Likewise, in Agostini v. Felton, the Court noted that, if government aid “is allocated on the basis of neutral, secular criteria that neither favor nor disfavor religion, and is made available to both religious and secular beneficiaries on a nondiscriminatory basis,” then any effects upon religion are merely incidental. Such reasoning has been used to uphold many programs that may have resulted in incidental benefits to religion but were “made available generally without regard to the sectarian-nonsectarian, or public-nonpublic nature of the institution benefited” under criteria that are “in no way skewed towards religion” (521 U.S. 203, 220, 231 (1997).

How does all this affect the teaching of evolution? Because evolutionary biology is based upon science, when we teach it as a science, the primary effect is to advance scientific knowledge.

Of course, a scientific theory like evolution does speak to ultimate questions about origins, which are also addressed by religion. So it certainly touches upon religious questions. But when we discuss Darwinian evolution strictly on a scientific level, any effects upon religion are “secondary” or “incidental” compared to their primary effect of advancing scientific knowledge.

This is in fact precisely how sensitive courts have justified the teaching of Darwinism. For example, in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, Judge Overton found that if creation science were a scientific theory, it could have been taught because any its touching upon religion would have been a secondary effect: “Secondary effects which advance religion are not constitutionally fatal. Since creation science is not science, the conclusion is inescapable that the only real effect of Act 590 is the advancement of religion” (529 F. Supp. 1255, 1272 (E.D. Ark. 1982)).

This approach was also followed in Crowley v. Smithsonian Institution, where a federal judge rejected arguments that Smithsonian exhibits on evolution established “secular humanism” because the “impact [on religion] is at most incidental to the primary effect of presenting a body of scientific knowledge” (462 F. Supp. 725, 727 (D.C. 1978) (emphasis added)).

Because evolution is based upon science, any effects upon religion would not bar its teaching. I like the way one law review article put it:

[I]f a theory has scientific value and evidence to support it, its primary effect would be to advance knowledge of the natural world, not to advance religion. The ultimate goal of schools is to educate students. Where a theory has scientific value and supporting evidence, it provides a basis for knowledge. Whether it coincidentally advances religion should not matter.

(Theresa Wilson, “Evolution, Creation, and Naturally Selecting Intelligent Design out of the Public Schools,” 34 U. Tol. L. Rev. 203, 232 (2003).

In this manner, one can legally justify teaching evolution while being sensitive to the fact that it has larger implications that touch upon the religious beliefs of many Americans. This reasoning offers the best of both worlds. It allows science to be taught in the science classroom while respecting the beliefs of people who have religious objections to evolution.

Many evolutionists, however, would probably dislike this way of thinking. Why? Because the very same approach would justify teaching about intelligent design in public schools.

Image by Daderot (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, 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.



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