May 26, 2006

Federal Court Sends Back Georgia Evolution Sticker Case

Washington, D.C.

The Associated Press reports that a federal appeals court on Thursday, May 25, sent back a lower court’s order for a suburban Atlanta school district to remove textbook stickers calling evolution “a theory, not a fact.”

The Pew Forum gives quick answers to complex questions raised by the news.

Featuring:
David Masci, Senior Research Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life


Why is this case important?

Efforts to curtail or offer alternatives to the teaching of Darwin’s theory have come up in state legislatures, school boards and town councils around the country and it will be up to the courts to determine their constitutionality. Meanwhile, polls show that a solid majority of Americans favor the teaching of both evolution and creationism in public schools. And a new concept, Intelligent Design, has been gaining traction among evolution opponents. All in all, most observers expect the issue to be an ongoing battleground in the nation’s “culture wars.”

What exactly did the appeals court do?

The appeals court’s three-judge panel has told the district court judge that he did not properly try the case. In particular, the appeals court judges criticized lower court Judge Clarence Cooper for making a decision based on what they say is incomplete or potentially faulty evidence. Now, they are ordering him to go back and fix it.

What prompted the appeals court to make this determination?

The court found problems in the evidentiary record. For instance, in determining that the sticker unconstitutionally advanced religion, the lower court judge said the school board had considered placing the disclaimer on textbooks after receiving a petition signed by 2,300 local residents. But, according to the appeals court, no such petition appears in the evidentiary record.

Why is this textbook sticker so controversial?

Even though the text of the sticker is just 33 words and never mentions God, the Bible or creationism, it questions the validity of evolution. Many scientists argue that by calling evolution “a theory, not a fact” the authors of the sticker imply that it is just a hunch or a best guess. In actuality, they say scientists use the word theory to describe a well-supported explanation for the evidence. Supporters of the sticker counter that a disclaimer prompts students to think critically about life’s origins. They argue that evolution’s proponents should not be afraid of encouraging people to question scientific orthodoxy.

What are the key background facts in this case?

The case, Selman v. Cobb County School Board, stems from a March, 2002 decision by the Cobb County school board to affix a sticker to high school biology textbooks that reads, in part, that evolution is “a theory, not a fact [and] … should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.” In January, 2005, after a trial, Federal District Court Judge Clarence Cooper ordered the stickers to be removed because they had the effect of advancing religion and thus violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Which side does this latest development benefit?

Both sides get something from the appeals court. The school board and supportive parents will have another chance to make their case to the district court that ruled against them last year. The five parents who brought this case and other opponents of the stickers believe they will prevail again, even after new evidence is introduced in the case. In addition, the district court’s order to keep the stickers off the textbooks stands.

What happens next?

The appeals court leaves it up to the district court to determine how to address its concerns, either by retrying the case or supplementing the existing trial record with new evidence. Whatever decision the district court ultimately renders, the case will almost certainly be appealed again to the same appeals court that made the decision to send it back. This means that even though the appeals court put off deciding the sticker’s constitutionality, it may have to do so in the next few years.

Additional Pew Forum Resources

Transcript of discussion with University of Georgia Professor Ed Larson, author of Trial and Error: the American Controversy Over Creationism and Evolution

Roundtable discussion on Intelligent Design held at the National Press Club

Overview of Important Cases in the Evolution Debate

Poll Reveals a Public Divided on Origins of Life