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McClean v. Arkansas (1981)

Evolution, Scientific 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

In 1968, the Supreme Court found that an Arkansas law prohibiting the teaching of evolution was impermissible because it violateed the Establishment Clause and prohibited the free exercise of religion.

As a result of this decision, states were forbidden to ban the teaching of evolution even in public schools - creationists had to find some other means to oppose "godless" evolution. Thus, at this time "scientific creationism" began to develop by those looking for some way to challenge evolution in the science classes with something that did not appear to be as overtly religious.

The chief goal was to work for the passage of "balanced treatment" laws that mandate that whenever evolution is taught, then so must creation science. Once again, Arkansas took the lead by passing Act 590 in 1981. This law required that in all public schools, creation science must be given "balanced treatment" alongside evolution.

A number of people, including local clergy, sued to have the law struck down. They argued that it impermissibly caused the government to give special support and consideration to one type of religious doctrine.

Court Decision

A U.S. District Judge, William R. Overton, found that this law, too, was unconstitutional. It is true that the law did not demand minute-for-minute parity between evolution and creationism, but that did not factor into his final decision.

According to the Overton, creation science was indeed based upon religious ideas despite vehement claims to the contrary:

The approach to teaching "creation science" and "evolution- science" found in Act 590 is identical to the two-model approach espoused by the Institute for Creation Research and is taken almost verbatim from ICR writings. It is an extension of Fundamentalists' view that one must either accept the literal interpretation of Genesis or else believe in the godless system of evolution.

It should be noted that the state attempted to create a non-religious version of creation science by abandoning much of what would make creationism religious, as can be seen in this pre-trial brief:

The entity which caused the creation hypothesized in creation-science is far, far away from any conception of a god or deity. All that creation-science requires is that the entity which caused creation have power, intelligence, and a sense of design. There are no attributes of the personality generally associated with a deity, nor is there necessarily present in the creator any love, compassion, sense of justice, or concern for any individuals. Indeed, under creation-science as defined in Act 590, there is no requirement that the entity which caused the universe still be in existence.

It is worth wondering how many fundamentalists who supported Arkansas' creation-science law realized just how much of their religion was not just abandoned, but explicitly denied in the effort to keep the law.

Creationists decided not to appeal the case, deciding to base their hopes on a Louisiana case which they felt they had a better chance of winning. That case was Edwards v. Aguillard, and the creationists were to be very disappointed.

Significance

This decision is one of several which finally made it clear that creationism and creation-science, no matter how carefully dressed up, would continue to be regarded for what they are: religious doctrines. Thus, this avenue which fundamentalists attempted to use to sneak religious education into public schools has been closed down.

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.


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