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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Fall 2006
Vol. 33 No. 3

God, Darwin, and the Courts: An Evolving Debate

Charles J. Russo

The dispute over the origin of humankind that began with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 18591 has created an ongoing controversy between the scientific, religious, and legal communities in the United States. In fact, consistent with the American practice of litigating almost every dispute imaginable, especially with regard to the interplay between religion and public education, the lengthy judicial history over the controversy concerning the origins of the human race continues to rage on.

Beginning with the legendary “Scopes Monkey Trial,”2 the American judiciary has witnessed a steady, if not overly abundant, supply of cases, two of which reached the United States Supreme Court on the merits of the claims, over the content of the curriculum in public schools with regard to the origins of humankind. While most of the litigation has focused on whether students should be taught that the human race developed through the process known as evolution or direct divine creation, a limited number of more recent disputes have also involved challenges by teachers who refused to teach about evolution. Insofar as the First Amendment explicitly prohibits only Congress from making laws establishing religion, in 1940 the Court applied the provisions of the First Amendment to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment3 in resolving these disagreements regardless of whether they were litigated in federal or state courts.

Supporters of divine creation fall into two camps. On the one hand are the proponents of “traditional” creation science, the term preferred by its supporters,4 or creationism, the title used by critics,5 the belief that humans were created in accord with the Biblical account in Genesis.6 More recently, support has emerged for intelligent design, a theory advanced by a small, but growing, number of members of the scientific community who maintain that since organisms are too complex to have evolved according to Darwin’s hypothesis, they must have had an intelligent designer that, they may not name as such, must have been God.7

In light of the ongoing legal, and educational, controversy over the teaching of human origins, this article is divided into two parts. The first section reviews litigation involving the teaching of evolution in American public schools,8 dealing with the curriculum, teachers, and parents, while the second reflects on how this controversy might best be resolved in a way that is pedagogically and legally sound. 

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