Critical Thought & Religious Liberty


Religious Court Rulings

The following rulings are some of the most significant court decisions regarding State-Church Separation and Creationism.

n Everson v. Board of Education (330 U.S., 1947) the Supreme Court stated in its majority opinion: “The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever from they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between Church and State.’”

In the 1948 case of Illinoisex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that religious instruction could not be conducted in public school buildings. Justice Hugo Black declared: “To hold that a state cannot consistently with the First and Fourteenth Amendments utilize its public school system to aid any or all religious faiths or sects in the dissemination of their doctrines and ideals does not, as counsel urge, manifest a governmental hostility to religion or religious teachings. A manifestation of such hostility would be at war with our national tradition as embodied in the First Amendment's guaranty of the free exercise of religion. For the First Amendment rests upon the premise that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other within its respective sphere. Or, as we said in the Everson case, the First Amendment had erected a wall between Church and State which must be kept high and impregnable.”

In 1961, in Torcaso v. Watkins, the Court held that the state of Maryland cannot require applicants for public office to swear that they believed in the existence of God. The Court unanimously ruled that a religious test violates the Establishment Clause. See Article VI., Clause 3, of the US Constitution.

In 1962, in Engel v. Vitale, the U.S. Supreme Court forbade public schools to require the recitation of prayers. Because of the prohibition of the First Amendment against the enactment of any law "respecting an establishment of religion," which is made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, state officials may not compose an official state prayer and require that it be recited in the public schools of the State at the beginning of each school day, even if the prayer is denominationally neutral and pupils who wish to do so may remain silent or be excused from the room while the prayer is being recited.  (Real Audio)

In 1963 Abington School District v. Schempp, the Court prohibited any state law or school board to require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord’s Prayer be recited in the public schools at the beginning of each school day — even if individual students may be excused from attending or participating in such exercises upon written request of their parents. (Real Audio - Part 2)

The 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman case established the three part test for determining if an action of government violates First Amendment’s separation of church and state: 1) the government action must have a secular purpose; 2) its primary purpose must not be to inhibit or to advance religion; 3) there must be no excessive entanglement between government and religion. (Real Audio)

In the 1980 case of Stone v. Graham, the Supreme Court ruled that the Ten Commandments cannot be posted within the public schools. The ruling stated that the Kentucky statute requiring the posting of a copy of the Ten Commandments, purchased with private contributions, has no secular legislative purpose, and therefore is unconstitutional as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

In Wallace v. Jaffree, 1985, the high court voted 6-3 to strike down an Alabama law requiring public schools to set aside a moment of silence for meditation or prayer. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote: "Just as the right to speak and the right to refrain from speaking are complementary components of a broader concept of individual freedom of mind, so also the individual's freedom to choose his own creed is the counterpart of his right to refrain from accepting the creed established by the majority. At one time it was thought that this right merely proscribed the preference of one Christian sect over another, but would not require equal respect for the conscience of the infidel, the atheist or the adherent of a non-Christian faith such as Mohammedism or Judaism. But when the underlying principle has been examined in the crucible of litigation, the Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of con science protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all."

In the 1992 Lee v. Weisman case, the Court ruled that public schools may not sponsor invocations at graduation ceremonies. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote: "The First Amendment's Religion Clauses mean that religious beliefs and religious expression are too precious to be either proscribed or prescribed by the State. The design of the Constitution is that preservation and transmission of religious beliefs and worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private sphere, which itself is promised freedom to pursue that mission. It must not be forgotten then, that while concern must be given to define the prot ection granted to an objector or a dissenting nonbeliever, these same Clauses exist to protect religion from government interference." (Real Audio)

The following rulings are some of the most significant court decisions regarding Evolution and Creationism.

In 1968, in Epperson v. Arkansas, the United States Supreme Court invalidated an Arkansas statute that prohibited the teaching of evolution. The Court held the statute unconstitutional on grounds that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not permit a state to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any particular religious sect or doctrine.

( Epperson v. Arkansas, 393, U.S. 97, 1968 )

In 1981, in Segraves v. State of California, the Court found that the California State Board of Education's Science Framework, as written and as qualified by its anti-dogmatism policy, gave sufficient accommodation to the views of Segraves, contrary to his contention that class discussion of evolution prohibited his and his children's free exercise of religion. The anti-dogmatism policy provided that class distinctions of origins should emphasize that scientific explanations focus on "how," not "ultimate cause," and that any speculative statements concerning origins, both in texts and in classes, should be presented conditionally, not dogmatically. The court's ruling also directed the Board of Education to widely disseminate the policy, which in 1989 was expanded to cover all areas of science, not just those concerning issues of origins.

( Segraves v. California, No. 278978 Sacramento Superior Court, 1981 )

In 1982, in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, a federal court held that a "balanced treatment" statute violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Arkansas statute required public schools to give balanced treatment to "creation-science" and "evolution-science." In a decision that gave a detailed definition of the term "science," the court declared that "creation science" is not in fact a science. The court also found that the statute did not have a secular purpose, noting that the statute used language peculiar to creationist literature in emphasizing origins of life as an aspect of the theory of evolution. While the subject of life's origins is within the province of biology, the scientific community does not consider the subject as part of evolutionary theory, which assumes the existence of life and is directed to an explanation of how life evolved after it originated. The theory of evolution does not presuppose either the absence or the presence of a creator.

( McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, 529 F. Supp. 1255, 50 (1982) U.S. Law Week 2412 )

In 1987, in Edwards v. Aguillard, the U.S. Supreme Court held, 7-2, the Louisiana's "Creationism Act," unconstitutional. This statute prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools, except when it was accompanied by instruction in "creation science." The Court found that, by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind, which is embraced by the term creation science, the act impermissibly endorses religion. In addition, the Court found that the provision of a comprehensive science education is undermined when it is forbidden to teach evolution except when creation science is also taught.

    ( Edwards v. Aguillard, 482, U.S. 578, 55 (1987) U.S. Law Week 4860, S. CT. 2573, 96 L. Ed. 2d510 )

In 1990, in Webster v. New Lennox School District, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that a school district may prohibit a teacher from teaching creation science in fulfilling its responsibility to ensure that the First Amendment's establishment clause is not violated, and religious beliefs are not injected into the public school curriculum. The court upheld a district court finding that the school district had not violated Webster's free speech rights when it prohibited him from teaching "creation science," since it is a form of religious advocacy.

( Webster v. New Lennox School District #122, 917 F.2d 1004 [7th. Cir., 1990])

In 1994, in Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court finding that a teacher's First Amendment right to free exercise of religion is not violated by a school district's requirement that evolution be taught in biology classes. Rejecting plaintiff Peloza's definition of a "religion" of "evolutionism," the Court found that the district had simply and appropriately required a science teacher to teach a scientific theory in biology class.

( Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, 37 F.3d 517 [9th Cir., 1994])

In 1997, in Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana rejected a policy requiring teachers to read aloud a disclaimer whenever they taught about evolution, ostensibly to promote "critical thinking". Noting that the policy singled out the theory of evolution for attention, that it specifically stated that the only concept from which students were not to be dissuaded was "the Biblical concept of Creation," and that students were already urged in all their classes to engage in critical thinking, the Court wrote that, "In mandating this disclaimer, the School Board is endorsing religion by disclaiming the teaching of evolution in such a manner as to convey the message that evolution is a religious viewpoint that runs counter to... other religious views." Besides addressing disclaimer policies, the decision is noteworthy for recognizing that curriculum proposals for "intelligent design" are equivalent to proposals for teaching "creation science." On August 13, 1999, the 5th circuit court of appeals affirmed the ruling. On June 19, 2000, the Supreme Court declined to hear the School Board's appeal, thus letting the lower court’s decision stand.

(Freiler v. Tangipahoa Board of Education, No. 94-3577, E.D. La. Aug. 8, 1997.)

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