Public Schools--Theories of Origins of Life--Creation Science--Establishment Clause


Whether a teacher in a public school in Tennessee can teach all theories of the origin of life for the purpose of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction?


It is the opinion of this office that a public school teacher can teach any scientific theory of the origin of life, such as evolution. However, no theory of the origin of life which is religiously based can be taught in the public schools as part of the science curriculum, because its teaching would violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.


the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...." Through the Fourteenth Amendment, the Untied States Supreme Court has applied the establishment clause to the states. See Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940). In determining whether there is a violation of the establishment clause in a particular situation, the Supreme Court, in the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-613 (1971) announced the following three-prong test:

First, the legislature must have adopted the law with a secular purpose. Second, the statute's principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion. Third, the statute must not result in an excessive entanglement of government with religion.

It should also be noted that the establishment clause applies not only to statutes, but to all actions by public employees and officials which would result in a prohibited promotion of religion. See Breen v. Runkel, 614 F. Supp. 355 (W.D. Mich. 1985) (when acting in capacity as classroom instructors, teachers are "state actors" for purpose of determining whether their praying in classrooms, reading from the Bible, and telling stories that have a biblical basis violates the establishment clause.); Collins v. Chandler Unified School District, 644 F.2d 759, cert. denied, 454 U.S. 863 (1980) (where a high school principal, with the concurrence of their superintendent, granted permission for a student council to recite prayers and Bible verses of their choosing during school hours, there was a violation of the establishment clause).

With regard to your question, a recent decision by the United States Supreme Court held a Louisiana statute required the teaching of "creation science" in public schools if evolution was taught to be violative of the establishment clause. Edwards v. Aguillard, 107 S. Ct. 2573 (1987). In concluding that the statute was unconstitutional, Justice William Brennan, writing for the majority, stated the following with regard to "creation science" as a scientific theory of the origin of life:

The preeminent purpose of the Louisiana legislature was clearly to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created human kind. the term 'creation science' was defined as embracing this particular religious doctrine by those responsible for the passage of the Creationism Act. Senator Keith's leading expert on creation science, Edward Boudreaux, testified at the legislative hearings that the theory of creation science included belief in the existence of a supernatural creator.... The legislative history therefore reveals that the term 'creation science' as contemplated by the legislature that adopted this act, embodies the religious belief that a supernatural creator was responsible for the creation of human kind.

Id. at 2581-82. Thus, according to Justice Brennan, "creation science", as understood to include the concept of a supernatural creator, is religiously based and cannot be taught in the public schools as part of the science curriculum without violating the establishment clause.

Justice Brennan's opinion was based upon the record of the legislative debates of the Louisiana statute. No such records exists in this situation. However, the fact that a statute has not been passed in Tennessee requiring the teaching of "creation science" or prohibiting the teaching of evolution unless "creation science" is taught, would not render the actions of a teacher who taught "creation science" as part of the science curriculum to be constitutional. Rather, the teaching of "creation science", if it is intended to include the belief that a supernatural creator was responsible for the creation of live, is an attempt to advance a particular religious view and is violative of the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

On the other hand, there would appear to be on constitutional problem with presenting the Biblical account of creation as part of a comparative religion course. See Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963) (Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, or comparative religion); Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980) (Ten Commandments cannot be posted on classroom walls but could be discussed in course on ethics).

Opinion no. 88-149
August 18, 1988

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