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.
28 thoughts on “Creationism is back: a pro-ID bill passes the West Virginia Senate”
Is it in West Virginia, or in Wyoming? I think WV.
Yes, West Virginia. I was informed that I screwed up, and it’s fixed now.
It could be taught as an example of pdeudo-science.
It doesn’t rise to the level of pseudo-science. As has been opined, it’s not even wrong.
That seems to me the exact definition of pseudoscience.
That could be the Achilles’ Heel of this bill. If it’s okay for teachers to teach Intelligent Design as science, then it’s okay for teachers to teach its weaknesses. Explicitly explaining why an “Intelligent Designer” is a poor, muddled concept with no support goes beyond modestly stating “it’s simply not science” while quickly shoving it safely into a closet. Why gosh no — take it out and let it dance in the light of modern science!
We’d need a modern day Scopes in West Virginia to explain to the kiddies why it’s a bad idea to explain anything with an Intelligent Designer.
The problem is that the teachers are West Virginians.
Don’t worry, Wyoming is just about to say, “Hold my beer.”
“Intelligent design” creationism is a marketing term used by the Discovery Institute, affectionally known as the Disco Tute.
There is no theory. There are no metrics. There isn’t even a definition. No body of work. No data. No observations. Basically, no nothing. “Coke is the Real Thing” has more substance to it than “ID” creationism.
So, the irony of any of these bills to mandate or allow the teaching of “ID” creationism is that there is nothing to teach. Absolutely nothing. Of course, the ignorant legislators are clueless about all of this; it’s just a phrase, talking point, bumper sticker slogan.
What cracked me up is how cock-sure they are about “ID” creationism which they call a “theory that … universe AND/OR humanity” And Or? Seriously? Maybe perhaps sorta coulda woulda yadda yadda. Boy, howdy, that thar is some science!
We shall worry.
Since the Supreme Court has already shown a great willingness to ignore piles of precedent while it marches us backward, there is now reason to believe that it will similarly rule in favor of this law should it come before them. The key point made by judge Jones that creationism/ID was not science bc it “has not generated peer-reviewed publications” has arguably changed, since ID advocates have managed to sneak thru ID papers past peer reviewers and into publication. For example, there are a couple in the formerly good Journal of Theoretical Biology. Why they were allowed through is baffling, but what is done is done. I believe there are other such papers out there. Not many, but one does not need many to be enough.
So any conservative and religiously addled judge looking to find evidence that Creationism/ID can pass as science now has their excuse.
Notice that the Act states that “teachers MAY teach intelligent design…” It doesn’t mandate it. Thus, West Virginia may argue that if a school district or school or teacher has determined that intelligent design is a valid theory then it may be taught, but is not required to. The word “MAY”, not “MUST”, could be all the right-wing theocrats on the Supreme Court need to rule that the law is constitutional. It will say that there is no coercion to teach it. It should be left to the school district or school or teacher to render judgment as to whether intelligent design has enough scientific validity to be taught. As we know precedent means nothing to this Supreme Court, so if the West Virginia bill becomes state law, I think the Supreme Court will uphold its constitutionality.
Coercion goes in different directions. There is also coercion upon students to hear and regurgitate whatever drivel a teacher chooses to teach. ID is grounded on Judeo-Christian theology, so students who are outside of that domain will feel unconstitutional pressure. But of course that definitely means nothing to our highest court right now.
Any senator or elected official, knowing good well, what the ultimate outcome of this bill will be, should be liable from the own personnel bank accounts, for all attorneys fees and cost incurred by schools and districts, when this is eventually overturned again!
I’m not sure that the bill really matters. It only says that schools may teach intelligent design. If the West Virginia science teachers are science teachers, they won’t teach intelligent design. If they are not science teachers, then this bill is the least of West Virginian education’s problems.
I suspect there are science teachers who would rather teach creationism than intelligent design. Sad, but true.
Sadly, I agree. It would not be unusual at all in that neck of the woods.
Yes, Christopher is right.
Then they are not science teachers and we have my second alternative.
The point is that this bill is not the cause of the problem, it’s a symptom and as long as the USA continues to produce science teachers who are prepared to ignore science, you are screwed.
I’ve warned in a couple recent comments here that the precedent of Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) could be in jeopardy given the US Supreme Court’s current composition.
First of all, there has been a complete turnover of justices since Edwards was decided. There are now five justices on SCOTUS cut from the same conservative cloth as Antonin Scalia and William Rehnquist, the dissenters in Edwards, rather than centrists such as Sandra Day O’Connor and Lewis Powell, who both concurred in striking down Louisiana’s “creation science” law.
Second, the main reason that the petitioner in Edwards (and the defendants in the district court case Kitzmiller v. Dover) lost is that the Louisiana state legislators in Edwards (and the sponsors of the school district policy in Kitzmiller) were very sloppy in leaving their religiously motivated fingerprints all over the statute and policy at issue in those cases.
Keep in mind that the federal courts, including SCOTUS, have no general jurisdiction over state public schools’ curricula. They lack any power to strike down a law or policy merely because they find it stupid or because they think it makes for bad educational policy. Their jurisdiction in such cases is limited to constitutional grounds. Where so-called “creation science” or “intelligent design” are at issue, that constitutional basis is the First Amendment’s clause prohibiting laws “respecting an establishment of religion[.]”
If the sponsors of an intelligent-design or creation-science bill — either in West Virginia or in some other jurisdiction from which a case might ultimately reach SCOTUS — were careful to omit any overt reference to God or religion from the statute’s text (and, just as crucially, from the legislative history leading up to the statute’s passage) and instead took care to rely upon some facially secular basis (even if pretextual, such as “to ensure educational balance” or “to foster free and open discussion”), I have no confidence that a majority of justices on today’s Supreme Court would not uphold that law and overrule the precedent of Edwards v. Aguillard faster than you can say “Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.”
I was surprised to see that Kitzmiller v. Dover was over 17 years ago—time passes quickly. I followed that story as closely as I could, up through Judge Jones’s use of the phrase “breathtaking inanity” to describe the school board’s decision to require teaching ID.
After that, I naively thought the issue had been mostly put to rest, but on hearing that it’s back, I am disappointed but not surprised.
Friends, though some of you have focused on the weasel word “may,” if this bill becomes law and any teacher would teach ID, that is still in violation of the 1st Amendment’s Establishment Clause, because the teacher is using tax receipts to pay for her materials and to be paid a salary. I don’t want my tax dollars going to support religious dogma. However, I’m aware of how this SCOTUS has viewed the Establishment Clause, in effect redlining it in its decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. Sad to say, ID will make a comeback in public schools.
I think it goes without saying that religious parents and parent organizations in Hell holes like WV will pressure and harass any teacher that tries to avoid the subject because of the “may”.
Creationism/ID has remained alive and well in East Texas, despite all this biology teacher’s efforts!
Why did you say “the late Judge Jones”. He is alive and well (https://www.dickinson.edu/homepage/1494/dickinson_college_president)
Well, I’m glad to hear it. I was nearly certain that I had heard of his death a while back. My mistake!
Hard to say what will happen here. West Virginia is not requiring the teaching of ID. They are simply not forbidding it. The current Court might regard this as furthering freedom of speech (constitutional), rather than as enabling the establishment of religion (not).
What is clear to those who have followed the history of this topic, when Biblical creationism was removed from the public schools, “scientific creationism” became the new candidate for inclusion. When that was rejected, “intelligent design” became the new candidate. The entire history of creationism in the public schools has been to dress the biblical story of creation in new clothing in the hope that—with the right wording—the new wardrobe will pass court scrutiny. I hope that the court recognizes ID for what it is—creationism in a cheap tuxedo.
Religion is on the decline in the U.S. but that doesn’t mean that its exponents have given up. Efforts like this will be around for a while longer, I’m afraid.
West Virginia is not Wyoming.While our legislators are capable of doing something this ridiculous, they did not this year.
Intelligent design has zero science, but they do have plenty of innovative engineering. They are ever designing new assault vehicles with which to ram religion into science classrooms. And designing stealth materials to try to slip religious establishment past courts’ radar. Or in the case of the current Supreme Court, past the radar of enough of the public so that the media can pretend that this court cares what the Constitution says.