Supreme Court rules 7-2 against Louisiana creationism law

By HENRY J. RESKE , UPI Supreme Court Reporter   |   June 19, 1987

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 Friday a Louisiana law promoting the teaching of creationism was a 'sham' to introduce religion into public schools, ending a fundamentalist Christian war that has raged since the sensational 'monkey trial' of 1925.

The overwhelming defeat makes clear that any attempts to introduce religious doctrine into a public school curriculum will likely fall before a skeptical court.

Only the court's most conservative members, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia, looked with favor on the law, which never went into effect.

Reaction was swift: Fundamentalists attacked the decision as a blatent exercise of judicial power, and those opposed to the law, including a wide range of religious leaders, applauded the ruling.

President Reagan, who supports the teaching of creationism, declined comment, but atheist leader Madalyn Murray O'Hair said, 'I thought they would go with the crazies. We are so pleased. We're going to have a beer bust.'

The case is similar to the sensational Scopes 'monkey trial' of 1925. School teacher John Scopes of Dayton, Tenn., was convicted of teaching Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. He was fined $100.

'Somewhere in heaven, John Scopes is celebrating,' said Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Justice William Brennan, the Supreme Court's most senior and liberal member, penned the opinion, and in 17 pages of crisp writing, he methodically took apart Louisiana's arguments that the law had a non-religious purpose and was written to promote academic freedom.

Brennan said the law violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.'

'The pre-eminent purpose of the Louisiana legislature was clearly to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind,' he said. 'The term 'creation-science' was defined as embracing this particular religious doctrine by those responsible for the passage of the Creationism Act.

'While the court is normally deferential to a state's articulation of a secular purpose,' Brennan continued, 'it is required that the statement of such purpose be sincere and not a sham. ... It is clear from the legislative history that the purpose of the legislative sponsor, Senator Bill Keith, was to narrow the science curriculum.'

Brennan concluded 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.

'The act violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it seeks to employ the symbolic and financial support of government to achieve a religious purpose.'

In dissent, Scalia, a conservative Reagan appointee, said there was 'no justification' for the decision to strike down a law that had a clearly stated secular purpose -- to protect academic freedom.

'The act defines creation-science as 'scientific evidence' ... We have no basis on the record to conclude that creation science need be anything other than a collection of scientific data supporting the theory that life abruptly appeared on earth,' Scalia said.

Evangelicals were bitter about the decision and said the court should not have second-guessed the Louisiana Legislature, while many scientists, including 72 Nobel laureates who opposed the law, were overjoyed.

But Keith, the law's author, said he was 'shocked and disappointed.'

'What this means is that the vast majority of American school children will continue to be indoctrinated in evolutionism and will be denied the right and the freedom to hear the evidences that point to creationism,' he said.

Former Louisiana Gov. David Treen, who signed the bill into law, put some distance between himself and creationism: 'I'm not surprised, happy, distraught or anything. I thought it was a relatively harmless bill. I don't have a serious problem with (the court's ruling).' Norman Newell, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, called the decision 'excellent.'

'So many people were on the side of the creationists, but they just did not have a good case,' Newell said. 'Many of their arguments were demonstrably false and to teach creationism in the public schools would have been anti-rationalistic and anti-science.'

Walter Slocombe, who represented Nobel Prize winners opposing the law, agreed: 'This ruling frees the teaching of science from this kind of confusion with what are basically religious concepts.'

'The only surprise is that it was 7-2 and not 9-zip,' ACLU attorney Ronald Wilson of Louisiana said of the vote. 'The law was definitely unconstitutional ... I hope that we have seen the end of this.'

But Forest Montgomery of the National Association of Evangelicals, said the big losers from Friday's ruling were the citizens of Louisiana.

'The court has said it knows better than the people of Louisiana,' Montgomery said. 'It wasn't just fundamentalists who voted for this law. The people voted this legislation.'

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