This week a U.S. District Court in Atlanta will hold a trial on the constitutionality of a textbook sticker placed in public school biology textbooks. The ACLU is suing the Cobb County School District after the school board chose to adopt a textbooks sticker reading: “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.” The bench trial, which will be presided over by Judge Clarence Cooper, could last as long as one week.
What is at Issue in the Trial?
This trial is not about evolution per se, but about the constitutionality of the textbook sticker (“the Sticker”).
At issue is whether the Sticker violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The District Court, like many other lower courts across the country, analyzes many Establishment Clause cases under the three-pronged Lemon Test. An act of government is constitutional under the Lemon test if:
- the act has a primarily secular purpose;
- the primary effect of the act does not promote religion over non-
religion, or promote one religion over another (or somehow serve as a
governmental endorsement of religion); – and –
- the act does not result in an excessive entanglement between church and
In a March 31, 2004 ruling, Judge Cooper ruled that the Sticker passed the first prong of the Lemon test. The Judge held that the Sticker had a primary secular purpose of promoting critical thinking skills (and also in reducing any parental offense that might result from the teaching of the subject in schools).
The trial will focus upon whether the Sticker passes the latter two prongs of Lemon: namely, whether the Sticker has a primary effect of promoting (or endorsing) religion and whether the Sticker creates a problem of excessive entanglement between church and state. A ruling from the Judge that the Sticker passes the latter two prongs of Lemon will mean that the Sticker is constitutional.
A decision in the case is not expected for several weeks.
U.S. Supreme Court Precedent
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the 1987 case of Edwards v. Aguillard could likely prove decisive in this case. In Edwards, the Court struck down a statute requiring the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in public school science classrooms. However, the Court stated: “We do not imply that a legislature could never require that scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories be taught.”
The Sticker at issue in the Cobb County case is written in such a way as to comport with the Supreme Court’s recognition of the constitutionality of “scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories,” and in this respect the Edwards case will likely be relevant to the Judge’s ruling.
Contrary to some discussion, the trial in Cobb County is not about the scientific theory of intelligent design, nor is it about the teaching of religious concepts such as Biblical Creationism. The text of the Sticker focused upon the study of evolution “with an open mind,” stressing critical thinking skills.
The Cobb County School Board adopted the Sticker in light of the increased attention given to evolution in the School District’s science curriculum. The School Board also adopted a special “theories of origin” policy which reads:
The purpose of this policy is to foster critical thinking among students, to allow academic freedom consistent with legal requirements, to promote tolerance and acceptance of diversity of opinion, and to ensure a posture of neutrality toward religion. It is the intent of the Cobb County Board of Education that this policy not be interpreted to restrict the teaching of evolution, to promote or require the teaching of creationism, or to discriminate against, or on behalf of, a particular set of religious beliefs, religion in general, or non-religion.
What is at Stake?
Of primary importance in this case is not the issue of textbook stickers per se, but of the academic freedom of teachers and students to be able to discuss the scientific controversy surrounding neo-Darwinian and chemical evolutionary theories. In a brief submitted to the Court last Spring, the ACLU made the false claims that there are no scientists who dispute evolution and that those who dispute evolution do so only for religious purposes. This case could have a serious impact upon the ability of teachers and students to be able to freely discuss the scientific evidence that points against neo-Darwinian and chemical evolutionary theories.