What is the legal history on some of the conflicts between science and religion?

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Answered by: Lu, An Expert in the Evolution and Creationism Category
Throughout American history, science and religion have often been in conflict. This clash has been exemplified in the battle between the science of biological evolution and religious Creationism in the realm of law. The "Scopes-Monkey Trial" was one of the most famous American legal cases that pitted scientific evolution against religious Creationism.



The Scopes Trial was the culmination of a backlash against the increasing popularity of evolution - interestingly, the majority of secondary and higher educational systems had all already accepted the teaching of evolution decades before the “anti-evolution crusade.” Before the early 20th century, many prominent Christian scientists wanted to incorporate the science of evolution with the teachings of Christianity. However, with their deaths and the rise of religious fundamentalism, the stage was set prominent Fundamentalist anti-evolutionists to take the stage - figures such as William J. Bryan, William B. Riley, and John R. Stration.

William Jennings Bryan, who would become the leader in the crusade opposed evolution for two main reasons: 1. He considered it morally harmful since it suggests a natural instead of divine origin for humanity and 2. It was used (or distorted) in Social Darwinism, which was also linked to the German militarism of WW1. Bryan's crusade was able to convince politicians such as the Tennessee legislature and executive branch to pass the Butler Act of 1925, which outlawed the denial of the Biblical account of Creation, as well as outlawing the teaching of human evolution.



The bill was intended to make a political statement about reaffirming belief in the Bible, and was actually never expected to be enforced. Essentially, the the trial originated as a publicity stunt by the small town of Dayton, TN. The town leaders collaborated with science teacher John T. Scopes, and "arranged" for him to be arrested after having him teach evolution. The most prominent member of the prosecution was the famous orator and politician, William Jennings Bryan. Prominent defense team members included Clarence Darrow, the famous Agnostic lawyer of the ACLU, and NY civil rights lawyer Dudley Field Malone. Despite the defense revealing many flaws in the reasoning behind the law, Scopes was still guilty of the issue at hand – that he taught evolution. Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution and ordered to pay a fine.

In the years after the trial, Creationists were able to associate evolution with atheism and anti-Christian principles in the eyes of the public. Numerous states followed suit in introducing bills banning the teaching of evolution. Nonetheless, in the 1940s, the court decisions such as Everson v. Board of Edu. and McCollum v. Board of Edu. would build up the case for evolution's eventual legalization. It was not until the 1960s before evolution would not only be legalized but accepted by the public – partially prompted by fears that the USSR would surpass the US through scientific advancement.

The Creationist movements in the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond would see Creationists adopting new strategies of undermining evolution. These ranged from accusing the government of inhibiting religious freedoms, advocating the “equal time doctrine” - teaching religious alternatives alongside evolution, as well as creating Creationist pseudo-science such as “intelligent design.” All of these attempts have been struck down in various court decisions.

The Establishment and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment stated that “Congress make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Originally, this was interpreted as only applicable to the Federal government – and states were free to promote religions. However, in 'Everson v Board of Education', Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote that there was a constitutional “wall of separation” between state and religion and that the clauses applied to both federal and state governments. In the case of McCollum vs Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that schools could not promote religious instruction, which did not ban religion in school, but only banned the promotion of religion in religious classes in publicly funded schools.

The Creationist argument that government was promoting secularism was struck down in Wright v. Houston Independent School District. Rita Wright had sued the school system by claiming that the federal government's promotion of evolution was a violation of the Free exercise Clause since it did not offer any alternative theories. Creationists supported her and claimed that the government was promoting a religion of “secularism." The courts ruled against her, saying that teaching a scientific theory that supposedly violated her religious beliefs did not violate the free exercise clause. Furthermore, evolution was the only credible theory since the alternatives was not actually science.

The Creationist idea of “equal time” has also been struck down by the courts. In Epperson vs Arkansas, the Supreme Court ruled that the Arkansas statute that banned the teaching of human evolution while allowing the teaching of creationism was unconstitutional. In 1987, in the case Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court ruled that Louisiana's law of requiring “creation science” to be taught alongside evolution was unconstitutional since it was advocating a particular religion - specifically the Creationism of Judeo-Christianity-Islam. These court cases reaffirmed the judicial interpretation that religious ideologies such as Creationism should not be taught in public schools since it promoted a fundamentalist interpretation of a specific religion.

Finally, Creationists have also created pseudo-sciences such as Intelligent Design, as an “alternative” to evolution.” However, the scientific community have testified that intelligent design is nothing more than Creationism repackaged under the guise of science. The ID “teach the controversy” campaign advocates using alternatives (specifically Abrahamic religious creationism) to explain the so called “factual holes” in evolution.

The courts realized that intelligent design is essentially Creationism in “sheep's clothing” and struck down ID in the recent 'Tammy Kitzmiller vs Dover Area School District' decision from 2005. The presiding judge, John E. Johns, made it clear that the Dover's School District's policy of teaching ID was in violation of the Establishment Clause since it was obviously religious in nature. Intelligent Design was clearly recognized as non-scientific but actually religious in nature since it not only supported 'supernatural causation,' but also outdated ideologies refuted by modern science.

The acceptance of evolution has been an uphill struggle bench-marked by various court cases and legal decisions throughout the century. Interestingly, evolution has faced little or no antagonism from other religions or even other branches of Christianity. Ironically, the Catholic Church, often seen by many Americans as a backwards and rigid institution, has been generally supportive of evolutionary science for many decades. Furthermore, many former opponents of evolution have consolidated their religious beliefs to coincide with the science of evolution.

As Americans become more scientifically literate, the general trend is towards a greater acceptance of biological evolution. Thus, it is hopeful that science and religion can be reconciled for the progress of society.

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