by David Masci, Senior Research Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Twenty years ago, on June 19, 1987, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that dramatically reshaped the debate over teaching evolution in public schools. In Edwards v. Aguillard, the high court struck down a Louisiana law requiring that schools teach creation science whenever students learn about evolution. The court ruled that the law’s purpose was to promote religion and thus that it violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. In issuing its ruling in Edwards, the court effectively closed the door on efforts to teach the biblical creation story in public school science classes. (For a fuller explanation of Edwards and related cases, see the Pew Forum’s legal backgrounder From Darwin to Dover.)

Even though Edwards ended efforts to teach creation science in public schools, it has not stifled the debate over how students should learn about the origins and development of life. One major reason the debate continues is public sentiment. Indeed, even though acceptance of evolutionary theory is nearly unanimous in the scientific community, polls have consistently shown that many Americans are skeptical of Darwin’s theory.

For instance, a July 2006 survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 26 percent of Americans said that humans and other living things evolved through natural selection, while 21 percent said that humans and other living things had evolved over time but under the guidance of a supreme being. More than four-in-ten (42 percent) said that humans and other living things have always existed in their present form only. Finally, the same survey found that 58 percent of Americans favored teaching creationism along with evolution in public schools.

Instead of trying to introduce creationism or creation science into science curricula – which Edwards made unconstitutional – many evolution opponents now promote the teaching of criticisms of or alternatives to Darwin. That is not to say that creation science is dead. Just last month, a new, $27-million Creation Museum opened in Petersburg, Ky. But since Edwards, leadership in the fight against teaching evolution in schools has shifted and now primarily comes from other quarters, particularly from advocates of a concept known as intelligent design.

Intelligent design posits that life is far too complex to have developed entirely through undirected, natural processes. Intelligent design supporters argue that God or some intelligent agent or designer had to have intervened – an idea, they say, which is increasingly supported by new scientific evidence. While the intelligent design movement counts a small number of scientists in its camp, the vast majority of the scientific community rejects the concept, arguing that it is essentially creationism dressed up with scientific language.

The intelligent design movement began in the late 1980s and early 1990s – soon after the Edwards decision – and has since grown. Intelligent design proponents generally do not argue that students should stop learning about evolution. Instead, they say, schools should “teach the controversy,” presenting the arguments for and against Darwin’s theory.

In the last decade, dozens of state legislatures and school boards around the country have debated proposals to teach criticisms of evolution. On a number of occasions these proposals have, at least temporarily, won approval. For instance, the Kansas Board of Education has twice rewritten high school science standards in the last decade to cast doubt on evolution. In each case, the original standards were restored after a subsequent election cost religious conservatives their majority on the school board. Similarly, the Ohio Board of Education voted in 2004 to alter its science standards to allow the teaching of criticisms of evolution, including intelligent design, only to reverse course less than two years later.

A number of school districts, in states such as Georgia and Louisiana, have placed stickers on biology textbooks informing their students that evolution is “a theory,” which, in the words of one of these disclaimers, “should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.” In each case, lawsuits were filed and the stickers ultimately were removed.

One school board, in Dover, Pa., voted in 2004 to include brief instruction on intelligent design in the town’s high school science curriculum. In Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005), a federal district court struck down the new instruction, ruling – as the Supreme Court did in Edwards – that its purpose was to promote religion rather than to improve science instruction.

Even though the Dover decision was issued by a lower court, it has had a significant impact on the evolution debate. The ruling prompted Ohio’s board of education in February 2006 to strip away the science standards challenging evolution that it had enacted just two years earlier. In addition, in the 18 months following Dover, the number of anti-evolution proposals in state legislatures and school boards decreased significantly.

As with Edwards 20 years ago, the Dover decision is unlikely to close the door on the debate. For many Americans, particularly religious Christians, Darwin’s theory goes against long-held, core beliefs about biblical truth. Opposition to teaching evolution may evolve to accommodate jurisprudence, but it will retain a place in the American cultural and political landscape for the foreseeable future.

Related Resources:
Religion & Politics ’08: Evolution Vaulted into National Politics
Legal Backgrounder: From Darwin to Dover