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Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education (1999)

Evolution & Disclaimers

In an effort not to offend religious families who object to the teaching of evolution, is it permissible for schools to insist that a "disclaimer" be read to the class and/or placed in science texts, explaining that evolution is only a theory and that it should not be perceived as a challenge to traditional religious beliefs?


Background Information

Following a failed attempt to introduce creation science into the Tangipahoa curriculum as a legitimate scientific alternative to evolution, the Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education adopted a resolution disclaiming the endorsement of evolution. The resolution stated:

Whenever, in classes of elementary or high school, the scientific theory of evolution is to be presented, whether from textbook, workbook, pamphlet, other written material, or oral presentation, the following statement shall be quoted immediately before the unit of study begins as a disclaimer from endorsement of such theory.

It is hereby recognized by the Tangipahoa Board of Education, that the lesson to be presented, regarding the origin of life and matter, is known as the Scientific Theory of Evolution and should be presented to inform students of the scientific concept and not intended to influence or dissuade the Biblical version of Creation or any other concept.

It is further recognized by the Board of Education that it is the basic right and privilege of each student to form his/her own opinion and maintain beliefs taught by parents on this very important matter of the origin of life and matter. Students are urged to exercise critical thinking and gather all information possible and closely examine each alternative toward forming an opinion.

On November 7, 1994, approximately seven months after the resolution passed, several parents of children in the TPPS brought suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, challenging the validity of the disclaimer under provisions in the United States and Louisiana constitutions barring laws "respecting an establishment of religion."

The district court found that the statements made by School Board members both during the adoption debate and while testifying at trial revealed that the disclaimer in fact had a religious purpose: i.e., to satisfy the religious concerns of the majority that the teaching of evolution in public school contradicted lessons taught in Sunday school. The school board appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Court Decision

The Fifth Circuit Court focused on whether or not the disclaimer violated the Lemon Test, choosing to give deference - but not blind reliance - to what the stated intentions of the disclaimer were.

According to the Board, the disclaimer served (1) to encourage informed freedom of belief, (2) to disclaim any orthodoxy of belief that could be inferred from the exclusive placement of evolution in the curriculum, and (3) to reduce offense to the sensibilities and sensitivities of any student or parent caused by the teaching of evolution.

Unfortunately for the school board, the court did not find that the stated reasons were entirely sincere. In the first place, they did not find that it encouraged informed freedom of belief or critical thinking. Even though that is stated first, the rest of the disclaimer works to the contrary in an effort to protect and maintain a particular religious viewpoint:

In the first paragraph to be read to school children, the Tangipahoa Board of Education declares that the "Scientific Theory of Evolution ...should be presented to inform students of the scientific concept" but that such teaching is "not intended to influence or dissuade the Biblical version of Creation or any other concept." From this, school children hear that evolution as taught in the classroom need not affect what they already know.

Such a message is contrary to an intent to encourage critical thinking, which requires that students approach new concepts with an open mind and a willingness to alter and shift existing viewpoints. This conclusion is even more inescapable when the message of the first paragraph is coupled with the statement in the last that it is "the basic right and privilege of each student to ...maintain beliefs taught by parents on [the] ...matter of the origin of life..." We, therefore, find that the disclaimer as a whole does not serve to encourage critical thinking and that the School Board's first articulated purpose is a sham.

The next question for the court was: are disclaiming orthodoxy of belief and reducing student/parent offense permissible secular objectives? The court found that those are indeed valid objectives - but while there may have existed a valid intended effect, that doesn't mean that the actual effect was valid:

...we conclude that the primary effect of the disclaimer is to protect and maintain a particular religious viewpoint, namely belief in the Biblical version of creation. In reaching this conclusion, we rely on the interplay of three factors: (1) the juxtaposition of the disavowal of endorsement of evolution with an urging that students contemplate alternative theories of the origin of life; (2) the reminder that students have the right to maintain beliefs taught by their parents regarding the origin of life; and (3) the "Biblical version of Creation" as the only alternative theory explicitly referenced in the disclaimer.

We note that the term "disclaimer," as used by the School Board to describe the passage to be read to students before lessons on evolution, is not wholly accurate. Beyond merely "disclaiming" endorsement of evolution, the two paragraph passage urges students to take action - to "exercise critical thinking and gather all information possible and closely examine each alternative" to evolution. The disclaimer, taken as a whole, encourages students to read and meditate upon religion in general and the "Biblical version of Creation" in particular.

Thus, even if a valid purpose can be found beyond the sham put up by the board, the actual effects of the "disclaimer" are nevertheless impermissibly sectarian and religious in nature. The disclaimer approved by the School Board was to be read during school hours by school teachers and explicitly encouraged students to consider religious alternatives to evolution, a part of the state-mandated curriculum.

Significance

This decision made it clear that an attempt to "water down" evolution with any explicit references to religious beliefs about the origins of life and the universe are ultimately attempts to have the government promote particular religious beliefs. Although it is permissible for a school board to try and keep from offending parents, they cannot do so in a way which encourages anyone's particular religious beliefs.

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