Thursday, January 12, 2006

Scopes, Microscopes, and Trials

I'm plugging in a comment from John Witte who is a lawyer who teaches law and religion stuff and writes really excellent theological histories. He muses on the litigation around creationism, evolution, and intelligent design. It's a short piece, but I think it makes valid points. (I've met John Witte, and I have found him to be very smart, friendly, gregarious, and deeply committed to good law and good policy.)

I don't know how to link you directly to this posting from the Marty Center at the U of Chicago, whence I received it. There is, however, a Marty Center link at the end. You subscribe for a one-page editorial (sort of), Sightings, once a week from Martin Marty and once a week from someone else in the field of faith and world affairs. There are also some really nifty seminar-like papers you might want to look at.

Here's John Witte:


Beyond Scopes-- John Witte, Jr.

Eighty years ago, the nation stood transfixed by the spectacle of two giants, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, fighting valiantly over the place of creation and evolution in public schools. Bryan, three-time presidential candidate, defended creationism as "inerrant fact" and denounced evolution as "atheistic fiction." Darrow, representing the new ACLU, insisted that evolution was "scientific fact" and creationism "obsolete myth." Bryan won the argument. But the 1925 Scopes Trial was a signal for many battles to come.

This fall, the nation stood transfixed again by the same battle rejoined in Dover, Pennsylvania -- now pitting proponents of intelligent design (ID) against the ACLU. This time the ACLU won handily. Their main argument: ID is simply biblical creationism by another name, and to teach it in public schools violates the First Amendment prohibition on government establishments of religion.

The ACLU had strong precedent on its side. In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that states may not ban the teaching of evolution in public schools. In 1987, the Court ruled that states may not require that creationism be given equal time with evolution in the science curriculum. Creationism is religion, not science, and has no place in public school science classes -- whether directly or indirectly.

Given these precedents, the result in Dover was almost inevitable. The public school board had required teachers to tell their students that evolution is "not a fact" but "a theory" fraught with "gaps" in the "evidence." Students were thus encouraged to consider the "explanations of intelligent design" as well.

Judge John Jones, a recent Bush appointee and professed Christian, found the school's policy patently unconstitutional and described its litigation strategy as "breath-taking inanity." Intelligent design is not science but creationism in a new guise, he concluded, and the school board's attempts to deny its religious inspiration and implications depended on "subterfuge." The Judge was particularly incensed that the defenders of the policy "who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public" were repeatedly caught "lying" and engaging in "sham arguments" to disguise their religious convictions.

For all its purplish prose, and for all the national celebration and lamentation it has occasioned, the Dover decision is legally very narrow. It applies only to a single district in Pennsylvania, not to the whole nation. The decision precludes ID only from public school science classes. It does not preclude it from public school classes in philosophy, cosmology, literature, and others. The decision applies only to actual instructional time in the classroom. It does not preclude voluntary
student groups from teaching and celebrating creation after school hours. And the decision applies only to public schools, not to private schools.This last point bears emphasis.

The Dover case reflects only one side of the two-sided compact that the Supreme Court has constructed over the past half century to govern religion and education questions. Yes, the First Amendment establishment clause prohibits much religion in public schools. But the First Amendment free exercise clause protects all religion in private schools. While confessional creationism is barred from public schools, it is welcome in private schools, including their science classes.

This two-sided compact of religion and education, while by no means perfect, strikes me as a prudent way to negotiate the nation's growing pluralism. Both the right and the left should stop trying to renegotiate the basic terms of the compact, and work instead to maximize liberty for all within these terms. The right has spent untold millions the past two decades trying to introduce bland prayers, banal morals, and now bleached theology into public schools. That money should have funded a national scholarship and voucher program that gives real educational choice to the poor. The left has spent untold millions more trying to cut religious schools and their students from equal access to funds, facilities, and forums available to all others. That money could have shored up many public schools that are disastrously failing.

We have the luxury of litigating about issues of religious symbolism in public life, but we might do better if we tended to the weightier matters of the law.

John Witte, Jr., is Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law and Director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Brian said...

I am currently reading a book, The New Babel by a philosopher of science... whose name escapes me right now.... last name starts with an S... that's what I get for doing an all-night lock-in and then trying to recall anything at all important...

Anyway... his comment regarding the Scopes trial is that while many people focus on the science winning the public opinion, ultimately it was really the theology that saved the day.


Brian said...

Ok... upon further review, I had it completely wrong. The book is The Tower of Babel: Against the New Creationists and it is written by a philosopher named Roger? Pennock.

It is very readable, and touches on the theological, but never in any depth.


Dwight P. said...

Thanks for the word, Brian: (Amazing what 2-1/2 hours will make, eh?) I've heard of Pennock, so I'll add this to my guilt-inspiring "List of Books I Really Must Read."