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Science and Religion Twenty Years After McLean V. Arkansas

The conventional wisdom in constitutional law is that the debate that began with the famous Scopes trial in 19251 over the teaching of origins in public school science classrooms officially ended in 1987. In that year the U.S. Supreme Court, in Edwards v. Aguillard,2 struck down a Louisiana statute, the Balanced Treatment Act, that required its public schools to teach creationism if they taught evolution and vice versa. The Court held that the statute violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. A small group of academics, however, with university appointments, impressive publications, and better credentials than their creationist predecessors, have raised questions about evolution and have offered alternative arguments that have changed the texture, tenor, and quality of a debate once thought long dead. 

The Intelligent Design (ID) movement, has presented an array of sophisticated and empirically grounded arguments supporting the notion that intelligent agency may do a better job of accounting for certain aspects of the natural world, or the natural world as a whole, than non-agent explanations, such as natural selection or scientific laws working on the unguided interaction of matter. ID theorists argue that certain physical systems, including biological ones, exhibit what is known as specified complexity, and that specified complexity is best accounted for by intelligent agency. Moreover, ID theorists maintain that contemporary science’s repudiation of intelligent agency as a legitimate category of explanation is not the result of carefully assessing ID’s arguments and finding them wanting, but rather, it is the result of an a priori philosophical commitment to methodological naturalism (MN), an epistemological point of view that entails ontological materialism (OM),5 but which ID proponents contend is not a necessary condition for the practice of science.6

Although the Edwards Court sounded the death-knell for creationism as part of the science curriculum in public schools, it neither prohibited public schools from teaching altermatives to evolution,7 nor prevented schools from offering to their students theories that may be consistent with, and lend sup9port to, a religious perspective. As I have argued elsewhere, both of these qualifications, combined with other factors, suggest that ID may be offered as part of a public school science curriculum or voluntarily by a teacher without violating the Establishment Clause, for, as we shall see, ID is an altemnative to evolution that is consistent with, and lends support to, a number of philosophical and religious points of view. Unlike creationism, however, ID is not derived from a particular religion’s special revelation, but is the result of arguments whose premises include empirical evidence, well-founded conceptual notions outside of the natural sciences, and conclusions that are supported by these premises. On the other hand, a future court may rely on the reasoning of a 1982 federal district court case, McLean v. Arkansas, to assess the constitutionality of teaching ID in public school science classes. McLean is the only federal court case that dealt with some of the important philosophical and scientific questions that simmer beneath the surface in this debate. For differing reasons, Edwards’0 and Epperson v. Arkansas never even came close to addressing these questions. McLean has been cited frequently as an authority in cases involving religion and public education.12 It is sometimes referred to as “Scopes IR” because of the massive media attention it received,’3 the colorful judge, William R. Overton, who presided over the case, the parade of well-known expert witnesses from a diversity of disciplines and religious points of view, and the publication of a number of books about the trial15, some of which were penned by expert witnesses who testified in the case. In this paper I will argue that the reasoning on which McLean is grounded, reasoning that may have been applicable in 1982 to the question of the permissibility of teaching creationism, is not applicable today to the question of whether a public school runs afoul of the Establishment Clause if it permits or requires the teaching of Intelligent Design. However, before assessing McLean’s contemporary applicability, it is essential that we first carefully define the terms creationism, evolution, and intelligent design.

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“Science and Religion Twenty Years after McLean V. Arkansas: Evolution, Public Education, and the New Challenge of Intelligent Design”, Beckwith, Francis J in Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Spring 2003), pp. 455ff.