Teaching evolution in public schools does not violate the First Amendment, a federal court has reaffirmed.
The ruling settles a curious case brought by a man named Kenneth Smith of Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Smith, representing himself, had filed suit against the Jefferson County Board of Education, the State Superintendent, the National Institutes of Health (and its director, Francis Collins) and the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that the his religious freedom rights had somehow been violated because his child learns about evolution in public school.
“Their actions during the 2014-2015 school year affects my child’s future directly through the state grading system to enter college and the ability to earn economic security and a good job in her chosen veterinarian medical field of work, by being taught a faith base (evolutionary ideology) that just doesn’t exist and has no math to back it,” he wrote in his complaint.
Smith added, “While denying the Plaintiff’s accurate scientific mathematical system of genetic variations that proves evolution is a religion, it will benefit our government economically and efficiently increase our judicial and law enforcement departments in many ways.”
That’s all rather nonsensical. Unless his daughter intends to attend a creationist Christian college, learning about evolution will only benefit her.
But logic and common sense don’t appear to be his strong suits: He also argued that public schools should teach his personal pseudoscience instead of evolution.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia did not agree.
As reported by our allies at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), Judge Gina M. Groh ruled that Smith had failed to demonstrate that the state agencies he sued had committed any wrongdoing. The judge also dismissed a claim Smith raised under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, finding that his child’s religious-freedom rights had not been violated by the teaching of evolution in public schools.
This is not Smith’s first legal rodeo. Yesterday’s decision noted that he had filed a similar lawsuit in 2007, arguing that the Jefferson County schools had “violated federal law” because they did not include his much-vaunted "mathematical system" in the curriculum.
In 2010, he filed another lawsuit – this time against the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the state of West Virginia alone – on the basis that evolution constituted an “ideology specific religious belief.”
Both suits were dismissed, but this did not deter the litigious Smith. A mere year after a court tossed his crusade against the NIH, he filed a discrimination complaint against his Dulles, Va., employer. He alleged that managers fired him from his job at a mail-processing plant after he expressed his personal views about “genetic research.” That too failed to persuade a court.
Smith hasn’t indicated if he intends to appeal this latest loss. Given his track record – and his conviction that he has stumbled upon a real scientific discovery – it seems likely that he might try again. He is, of course, extremely unlikely to succeed.
He also isn’t the first legal activist to attempt to convince a court that evolution is a religious doctrine rather than a scientific theory.
Last year, the creationist group Citizens for Objective Public Education (COPE) sued to stop the state of Kansas from implementing new science education standards that included the teaching of evolution. COPE argued that by teaching evolution, public schools had effectively endorsed atheism as a religious viewpoint. A federal court tossed the suit.
Creationism has fared poorly in the courts. A Louisiana law designed to promote “balanced tratement” between evolution and creationism was struck down by the Supreme Court in the 1987 case of Edwards v. Aguillard. A 2005 case dealing with “intelligent design,” Kitzmiller v. Dover, brought in part by Americans United, was another important victory for church-state separation and sound science. U.S. District Judge John E. Jones ruled that intelligent design creationism is a religious doctrine and could not be taught as fact in science classrooms. Until Smith’s “mathematical system” is verified through peer-reviewed research, it too should be excluded from classrooms.
And there’s no shortage of real scientific discoveries for public school students to consider. This morning, for example, a team of paleoanthropologists announced the discovery of Homo naledi, a human ancestor that researchers say buried its dead.
Students have a right to learn about incredible discoveries like Homo naledi. We’re fortunate that the courts agree.