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Webster v. New Lenox School District (1990)

Evolution vs. Creation Science

Do teachers in public schools have a right to teach whatever they want? Do they have a right to teach creation science alongside or instead of evolution if they are convinced that evolution is wrong but creation science is right?


Background Information

In the spring of 1987, a student in Ray Webster's social studies class complained that Mr. Webster's teaching methods violated principles of separation between church and state. The school board, through its superintendent, advised Mr. Webster by letter that he should restrict his classroom instruction to the curriculum and refrain from advocating a particular religious viewpoint.

Mr. Webster explained that he taught nonevolutionary theories of creation to rebut a statement in the social studies textbook indicating that the world is over four billion years old. Therefore, his teaching methods in no way violated the doctrine of separation between church and state. Mr. Webster contended that, at most, he encouraged students to explore alternative viewpoints.

Mr. Webster was specifically instructed not to teach creation science, because the teaching of this theory had been held by the federal courts to be religious advocacy. Webster filed suit and claimed that the New Lenox School District violated his first and Fourteenth Amendment rights by prohibiting him from teaching a nonevolutionary theory of creation in the classroom.

A district court found that he did not have a first amendment right to teach creationism in a public school, and Webster appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Court Decision

According to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the case was narrower and simpler than it might appear - Webster simply asserted that he had a first amendment right to teach whatever he chose and did not challenge the right of the school board to set the curriculum.

Although it is true that the power of school boards is not unlimited, the complaint contained no allegation that school authorities had imposed "a pall of orthodoxy" on the offerings of the entire public school curriculum.

Clearly, the school board had the authority and the responsibility to ensure that Mr. Webster did not stray from the established curriculum by injecting religious advocacy into the classroom. ...Today, we decide only that, given the allegations of the complaint, the school board has successfully navigated the narrow channel between impairing intellectual inquire and propagating a religious creed.

Significance

This decision reaffirmed the Supreme Court decision in Edwards v. Aguillard, which held that teaching creation science constitutes religious advocacy, and that therefore a school board can prohibit any teachers from promoting that subject in any classes.

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