CORRECTION: This article mistakenly said the bill was in Wyoming. It’s really in West Virginia.
It’s always been my fear, since the U.S. Supreme Court became hyperconservative, that they would rule to allow creationism to be taught in the public schools. It’s been effectively outlawed, but there’s one loophole to be closed: a Supreme Court ruling about whether Intelligent Design (“ID,” sometimes described as “creationism in a cheap tuxedo”) can be taught in the schools along with evolution.
There are three relevant court cases, two of which involved the Supreme Court.
Epperson v. Arkansas (1968). In this landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that an Arkansas state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional, for it violated the First Amendment by advancing religion.
Edwards v. Aguillard (1987). Another landmark case. This time the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 (Scalia and Rehnquist dissented) that a Louisiana “equal time” law, requiring that creationism be taught whenever evolution was, was unconstitutional. The majority again cited First Amendment grounds: creationism promoted a particular religious view.
Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005). Many of us remember this one. A federal judge in Pennsylvania, the late John E. Jones III, ruled on a case in which 11 parents in the city of Dover objected to a Dover School District policy requiring that whenever evolution was taught, Intelligent Design must also be taught, and stipulated the odious textbook Of Pandas and People as the ID text. I wrote my first article for The New Republic about this case, ostensibly a review of the ID text but really a critique of ID. It’s nearly disappeared online but is archived here, and I’ll be glad to send anyone a lovely pdf of the original article.
At any rate, after a six-week bench trial in which scientists and philosophers like Ken Miller, Barbara Forrest, and Robert Pennock appeared, while ID advocates like Michael Behe crumpled on the stand, Jones (a George W Bush appointee) issued a 139-page ruling asserting that ID was “not science” and forbidding the district’s new proposal. Judge Jones also chastised the school district for wasting time and money on an unwinnable case (I believe the school district, which had to pay court costs and attorney’s fees for the plaintiffs, was out over a million dollars). Two notable statements from Jones’s decision. The bolding is mine, but those four words were the headlines in many newspapers:
After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980’s; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. As we will discuss in more detail below, it is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research.
. . . To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.
Since the Kitzmiller case, no state or school district has dared pass a “teach ID” law, knowing that it would likely be overturned and cost the state/school a lot of dosh. But note that this federal case wasn’t appealed to the Supreme Court. Had it been at that time, Jones’s decision would have been affirmed. But times have changed now, and it’s possible that the new right-wing court could allow the teaching of ID on two grounds:
a. It could imply nullify Edwards v. Aguillard as it nullified Roe v. Wade, or
b. It could decide that ID is not creationism (or a form of religion) but actual science, and thus could be taught in schools.
Of course any fool who has studied ID knows that it is gussied-up creationism. It has not permeated the biology community (despite their promises it would), and clearly grew from religious roots. But who knows that this Supreme Court will do?
And so we come to the latest nightmare: the passing of a pro-ID bill by the West Virginia Senate. The link in the previous sentence goes to our old friend The Sensuous Curmudgeon, but you can also read an account at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). Here’s the bill that was proposed, which doesn’t require teachers to teach ID but allows them to do so if they wish (red rectangle is mine):
The bill passed by a vote of 27-6, which shows you how ignorant West Virginia lawmakers are (or, perhaps, savvy but disdainful of science). It hasn’t yet been
Here’s the NCSE’s take:
West Virginia’s Senate Bill 619 — which would, if enacted, allow “[t]eachers in public schools, including public charter schools, that include any one or more of grades Kindergarten through 12, [to] teach intelligent design as a theory of how the universe and/or humanity came to exist” — passed the Senate on a 27 to 6 vote on February 25, 2023, according (PDF) to the legislature’s website.
Before the bill passed, Dale Lee, President of the West Virginia Education Association, described it as a “solution in search of a problem,” according to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph (February 25, 2023). He added, “We teach WV College and Career readiness standards” — which, like all state science standards across the country, include evolution but not creationism (including “intelligent design”).
A columnist in Charleston’s MetroNews (February 24, 2023) previously, if unsuccessfully, reminded the legislature about the case law establishing the unconstitutionality of teaching creationism in the public schools, including Kitzmiller v. Dover and Edwards v. Aguillard, explaining that the government is not allowed “to instruct school children on a faith-based creation story and pass it off as science.”
The bill still hasn’t passed the state House, and even then must be signed by the governor to become law. If it does, there should be an appeal to the federal courts, which could wind up in the Supreme Court. And that could become biology’s biggest setback since John Scopes was convicted in 1925.