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Do Intelligent Design & Creationism Belong in Public School Science Classes?


The tension between science and religion has existed for centuries, the former dealing with the natural world and the latter with the supernatural or spiritual world. Many people may be familiar with the story of Galileo and his trial by the Inquisition in 1633. He was forced to recant his belief that the Sun, not Earth, was the center of the universe – that Earth moved around the Sun, and not vice versa, as the Church taught. More people may be familiar with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which has been attacked by religious fundamentalists for more than 150 years.

The conflict between religious beliefs and science is intensified in the crucible of public policy when proponents of either side conclude that the government has lost its impartiality to the detriment of the other. As a consequence, the country has a long history of state and federal court cases dealing with the intersection of religion and governance.

Separation of Church and State

The first phrase of the Third Article of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Since its passage, the separation of church and state has been the subject of numerous government actions and Supreme Court cases including the following:

  • In 1864, at an order by Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, the words “IN GOD WE TRUST” were inscribed on all new United States coinage, but did not appear on paper currency until 1957.
  • In 1878, the Supreme Court concluded that making religious law superior to civil law would make each person “law unto himself.” Such a belief would render the government ineffectual and irrelevant in the case Reynolds v. U.S. The case was about the practice of bigamy in Utah.
  • In 1947, the Supreme Court ruled in Everson v. Board of Education that the First Amendment applied to state governments, as well as to the Federal Government. The Court opinion included that neither the Federal Government nor the states can pass laws that aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.
  • In 1971, a Supreme Court case – Lemon v. Kurtzman – established what is commonly called the “Lemon Test” to determine whether a law had the effect of establishing a religion. In order to be constitutional and acceptable, a law must conform to the following:
    • It must have a secular legislative purpose
    • Its principal or primary effect must be one that either advances or inhibits religion
    • The state must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion”

    This test is currently in use whenever a question of church versus state arises.

A particular hot-button issue today that tests the separation of church and state is the addition of intelligent design to the curriculum of public school science classes.

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The Battle Over Teaching Evolution

Evolution has been long fought by its opponents – sometimes successfully – over being taught in public schools. The subject did not become a matter of dispute in the United States until the 1920s and 1930s. At that time, public schools began teaching that humans had evolved from earlier forms of life per Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Many states, particularly those in the South, passed laws that banned the teaching of evolution in state-funded schools. Tennessee and Arkansas passed laws outlawing the teaching of evolution in 1926 and 1928, respectively. While other state legislatures introduced bills to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools, no other states passed such legislation.

Over the next two and a half decades, the controversy about the teaching of evolution in schools cooled. The nation’s attention was directed first to the Great Depression and then to World War II. Concurrently, according to the National Humanities Center, fundamentalists lost ground to more liberal religious movements in the mainline denominations. In 1950, in his Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII declared that evolution was a serious hypothesis that did not contradict essential Catholic teachings.

In 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act following concern that science education in the United States was outdated. As a consequence, the teaching of evolution in high school throughout the country became more common. In May, 1967, Tennessee’s anti-evolution Butler Act was finally repealed.

Battle Over Teaching Evolution

Creation Science

In spite of a growing acceptance of teaching evolution, Fundamentalist Christians proposed that an alternative explanation of creation – creation science – be taught side by side with evolution in state-supported schools. Creation science is based on a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis in the Bible, and includes the following propositions:

  • The Earth was created within the last 6,000 to 10,000 years
  • Man and animals have existed in the same form since creation
  • A cataclysmic flood completely covered the Earth, accounting for fossils in various geological levels

However, proponents of creation science necessarily challenge the validity of many established sciences including astronomy, biology, cosmology, geology, and geophysics with the following assertions:

  • Humans and dinosaurs coexisted until man drove the latter to extinction
  • Present-day animals are descendants of the animal pairs saved in Noah’s ark during a flood that completely covered the Earth
  • Noah is the ancestor of all of the people in the world today

Proponents of creation science were successful in introducing texts and curricula in many public schools alongside the teaching of evolution in the 1970s, despite the opposition of the established scientific community. This success paralleled the rebirth of a Fundamentalism movement in religion and the adoption of the Christian Right by the Republican Party, especially in southern states.

But in 1981, a lawsuit (McLean v. Board of Education) was filed in Arkansas challenging a law that mandated the teaching of creation science in public schools. In 1982, the district judge ruled that creation science was religion, not science, and banned classes in public schools. Arkansas did not appeal the decision.

Louisiana had passed a similar law to teach creation science in its state schools the same year. Plaintiffs challenged the Louisiana law in a district court (Edwards v. Aguillard) on the basis of separation between church and state. Louisiana lost and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1987, the Court ruled that the teaching of creation science violated the prohibition of religion teaching in public schools.

Public Acceptance

While the law prohibits its teaching in public schools today, creation science has gained considerable public acceptance. According to a 2013 Pew Research Poll, one-third of U.S. adults believe that humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. A Gallup Poll in 2014 found that 42% of those polled believe that God created humans in their present form.

Those opposed to evolution include the average man on the street and many in positions of national and state office:

  • According to Pew Research, in the 2008 Republican presidential candidate debate on May 3, 2007, three Republicans – Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado – raised their hands when the 10 candidates were asked by the moderator, “Is there anyone on the stage who does not…believe in evolution?”
  • According to the Orlando Sentinel, in 2010, when asked if she believed in evolution, Republican Representative Sandy Adams responded, “I’m Christian. I believe in the biblical teachings.”
  • According to the Los Angeles Times, in 2012, Republican Paul Broun, a former Georgia representative and a member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, commented regarding “all that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all those lies straight from the pit of Hell. It’s lies to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior…I believe the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in the six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.”
  • Current representative and Baptist minister Jody Hice, who replaced Broun in Congress, attributed the shootings in Aurora, Columbine, and Virginia Tech to the promotion of evolution. In a 2014 radio interview, he claimed that evolution means “that no one has any meaning, that no life has any significance, it is all just a bizarre cosmic accident and that you are here with absolutely no meaning and no significance. And the more we promote that junk, the more we will get this type of result.”
  • According to The New York Times, in April 2014, Republican South Carolina Senator Kevin Bryant proposed an amendment to a bill naming the wooly mammoth as the official state fossil that would add a phrase saying the mammoth was created by God during the time of creation.

Efforts to find common ground between the biblical interpretation of creation and scientific view have proved fruitless as evidenced by a public debate in 2014 between Bill Nye, television host of the PBS series “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” and Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis and founder of the Creation Museum. Ham has also attacked the TV series host of PBS “Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey” for his “blind faith in science.” Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the host of the series, responded, “Ken Ham has beliefs that are even crazy to many Christians.”

Intelligent Design

Following the banning of teaching creation science in schools, fundamentalists turned to the intelligent design (ID) concept that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process, such as natural selection. The term “intelligent design” initially appeared in the textbook “Of Pandas and People” intended for high school biology courses following the Edwards v. Aguillard decision. Teachers of intelligent design have purposely not named the Designer, perhaps in an effort to avoid the link with religion that had caused the teaching of creative science to be banned from public schools.

In 2005, proponents for the separation of church and state filed suit in a federal district court (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) to eliminate the teaching of intelligent design in high school biology classes. The judge’s ruling noted that intelligent design is an “alternative explanation” as opposed a scientific “theory” like evolution. The ruling also stated, “The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID [intelligent design] is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.”

The ruling stated that ID is not science, in addition to the following:

  • Intelligent design has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community
  • It has not generated peer-reviewed positions
  • It has not been the subject of testing and research

The Dover School Board did not appeal the ruling.

However, the battle has now moved to the wording of textbooks used in public schools. In 2013, according to the Associated Press, the Texas Board of Education delayed approval on a widely used biology textbook due to complaints that evolution was presented as fact, rather than theory. The complainant, Ide Trotter, a chemical engineer and a professor of chemistry at Dallas Baptist University, is listed as a “Darwin Skeptic” on the “Creation Science Hall of Fame” website.

Intelligent Design Creation

The Catholic View

The Catholic Church, accounting for one in four of U.S. adults and the country’s largest religious organization according to Pew Research, supports the science of evolution, noting that it does not purport to answer every question, especially the greatest: Where does everything come from?

In a message delivered to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 22, 1996, Pope John Paul II stated, “We can all profit from the fruitfulness of frank dialogue between the church and science.” He also said evolution was “more than a hypothesis…The convergence in the results of these independent studies – which was neither planned nor sought – constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.”

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI said in a meeting, “There are so many scientific proofs in favor of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such.” And in 2014, as Religion News Service reports, Pope Frances declared, “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

As a consequence of his position on this and other social and economic issues, a bipartisan resolution by 19 Republicans and 202 Democrats was proposed to honor the Pope. One Republican, explaining why so few Republicans had sponsored the bill, stated that many view the Pope as “too liberal.”

The Future for Teaching Evolution in the U.S.

The teaching of creation science and intelligent design as an alternative to evolution has been consistently rejected by federal courts in numerous cases over the past 50 years. Nevertheless, fundamentalist Christians who believe in biblical inerrancy continue to oppose and question the validity of evolution.

The 2014 textbook controversy in Texas reported on by The New York Times is evidence that the controversy will continue. Also in 2014, the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee proposed a change in the science standards that would require students to construct scientific arguments to support and discredit Darwinian natural selection. The National Center for Science Education reports that though the state board of education rejected the change, one of its members proposed a similar resolution of support.

A New Supreme Court Case and its Outcome

In this atmosphere of partisan politics and a growing belief in creation science by the general public (despite evidence to the contrary), another school district in a red state is likely to again test the laws about teaching of evolution in its schools. Whether the current Supreme Court dominated by the five justices appointed by Republican presidents – Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito – will maintain the precedent of previous cases is unknown.

Will the anti-evolution efforts have disastrous effects upon the quantity and quality of Americans scientists in the future? According to scientist Bill Nye, it will hurt the progress of science and slow the interest of students who might become scientists: “Everybody should take a moment and think what it will mean to raise a generation of students who might believe it is reasonable to think for a moment that the Earth might be 10,000 years old. It’s an outrageous notion. It’s not a benign idea. It’s inane or silly. These students will not accept the process of science, which will stifle or suppress innovation.”

The Importance of Science Education in the Future

While there may not be agreement about evolution, virtually everyone believes that education – especially in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses – will be critical to America’s future. Writing in U.S. News, John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable and a former governor of Michigan, says that America needs STEM-related talent to compete with the rest of the world and will need more in the future.

Unfortunately, according to the National Science and Math Initiative, education has been on a slow decline in America for years:

  • Only 44% of U.S. high school graduates are ready for college-level math
  • About one-third (36%) of high school graduates are prepared for college-level science
  • Less than one-third of eighth grade students performed at a proficient level in science in 2011
  • High school students in 19 other industrialized nations performed better in science than U.S. students
  • In 1981, scientists in America fielded nearly 40% of research papers in the most influential journals; in 2009, the percentage of U.S. scientists’ papers had declined to 29%

Whether the decline of standards is due to the increasing distrust of science fostered by attacks on generally accepted theories such as evolution or climate change is unknown. The dumbing down of our citizens may be the result of an unwillingness to listen to the other side of an issue or consider anything that might conflict with their prejudices and stereotypes. In 2014, David Frum commented on CNN that even the most sophisticated news consumers filter out what they don’t want to hear today due to the multiple sources of information available.

Future Teaching Evolution

Final Word

Whether science and religion are reconcilable remains in debate. Dr. Victor Stenger, physicist and author of “God and the Folly of Faith,” contends the two will never coexist in harmony since religions rely on faith (belief despite a lack of supportable evidence) that allows humans to “access a realm lying beyond the physical world – a divine transcendent reality we call the supernatural.” Steiger claims that science is the systematic study of observations made in the natural world made with our senses and scientific instruments whose proof is its success. Simply stated, the two cannot agree on what is true.

Truth in a religious sense means agreement with a particular interpretation of a sacred book, often leading to conflicts between religious groups. Religious beliefs are based upon faith and absolute truth as revealed by God. Truth in a scientific sense means agreement with observations. Since reaching agreement is impossible, the only option for a peaceful conclusion is a toleration of each side’s beliefs, a difficult choice at best.

Do you think intelligent design belongs in school?

Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.