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Edwards v. Aguillard (1987)

Evolution, Creationism, & Balanced Treatment

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If evolution is taught in public school science classes, shouldn't other theories about the origins and development of life also be taught at the same time? Isn't the focus on just one idea narrow-minded? Some believe that it is and therefore argue that there should be "balance" - if one theory (evolution) about life is taught, then "the other" theory (creationism) should also be taught.

Background Information

Louisiana had passed a "Creationism Act" which prohibited any teaching of evolution in public schools unless the course also included the teaching of biblical creationism.

Neither of the two topics were actually required to be taught, but the former could not be presented without being accompanied with the latter - this is what is known as a Balanced Treatment program because it is designed to establish "balance" in how the origins of life are discussed in public schools. This was challenged by a group of parents for violating the Establishment Clause. According to them, any requirement of teaching creationism is an impermissible support of religion.

Court Decision

In a 7-2 decision written by Justice Brennan in 1987, the Supreme Court struck down Louisiana's "Creationism Act" because it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The state tried to argue that the law was simply designed to promote academic freedom by ensuring that students would hear about more than one theory on the origins of life, but the Court correctly noted that teachers were permitted to present more than one such theory before the law had been passed. The actual purpose of the law, then, had to be to make sure that creationism was taught if anything at all was taught.

Brennan found first that the Act did not have a secular purpose, and second that it did not advance academic freedom and restricted the abilities of teachers to teach what they deemed appropriate.

Moreover, Louisiana provided instructional packets to assist in the teaching of creationism but nothing of the sort for the teaching of evolution - thus demonstrating an interest in promoting creationism and religion.

For these reasons, it necessarily failed the Lemon Test:

The preeminent purpose of the Louisiana Legislature was clearly to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind...The Louisiana Creationism Act advances a religious doctrine by requiring either the banishment of the theory of evolution from public school classrooms or the presentation of a religious viewpoint that rejects evolution in its entirety.

Joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice Scalia dissented from this decision, arguing that the Louisana legislators were not genuinely motivated by religion when passing the Balanced Treatment Act - at least, that is what the legislators claimed and they should be believed. Moreover, even if that were their purpose, the existence of a genuine secular purpose would be overriding - and Scalia accepted the stated secular purpose of fostering a greater appreciation for diverse views on the origins and nature of life.

Of course, Justice Scalia doesn't believe that the purpose of a law should play any role in determining whether it violates religious freedom in the first place. According to Scalia, determining legislators' purposes is nearly impossible and easy to manipulate. Therefore, he believes and in this decision argued that the "purpose" prong of the Lemon Test simply be dropped entirely.


This decision concluded that requiring evolution to be taught only when alongside creation science does not further a secular purpose. Therefore, it was found unconstitutional for violating the first prong of the Lemon test.

Further Information

Evolution & Creationism...
Is evolution a science? Is creationism a science? What is science? Is there evidence for either? Religious fundamentalists often attack evolution, but rarely from a positions of really understanding what evolution is and how it works. This FAQ will not only teach you more about the nature of evolution and evolutionary theory, but it will also explain some of the more common complaints and where they go wrong.

Amicus Curiae Brief by 72 Nobel Laureates
Read the amicus curiae brief filed by 72 Nobel Prize winning scientists in support of the appellees.

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