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Supreme Court refuses to review evolution-disclaimer case

The Associated Press

06.19.00

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has refused to review a public school district's attempt to require that the teaching of evolution be accompanied by a disclaimer mentioning "the biblical version of creation" and other teachings on life's origin.

The justices, by a 6-3 vote today in Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education v. Freiler, let stand rulings that struck down a Louisiana school board's disclaimer policy as a violation of the constitutionally required separation of government and religion.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas voted to hear arguments in the case.

The Tangipahoa Parish school board in 1994 voted to require teachers to tell students about to study the theory of evolution that it was "presented to inform students of the scientific concept and not intended to influence or dissuade the biblical version of creation or any other concept."

The disclaimer drafted by the school board also said: "It is the basic right and privilege of each student to form his-her own opinion or maintain beliefs taught by parents on this very important matter. ... Students are urged to exercise critical thinking and gather all information possible and closely examine each alternative toward forming an opinion."

Three parents of students sued in federal court to challenge the policy, and a federal judge blocked its enforcement. The judge said the disclaimer was unconstitutional because it had a religious purpose.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last August agreed that the disclaimer had to be struck down but cited a different reason — it had the effect of promoting religion. The panel did not rule out the possibility that a school board could require some type of disclaimer stating that evolution was not the only accepted explanation of the origin of life.

Last January, the full 5th Circuit refused to consider the case, saying said the Tangipahoa Parish disclaimer "under the facts and circumstances of this case ... is not sufficiently neutral" to be constitutionally permissible.

In the appeal acted on today, lawyers for the school board argued that "the mere mention of the biblical version of creation by way of illustration does not present a significant risk of perceived endorsement of Bible-based religion."

The appeal said reasonable high school or elementary students would not interpret the disclaimer as a pro-religion message.

"The central message of the disclaimer resolution is that there are no outsiders or insiders, no one who is favored or disfavored, on the issue of life's origin but persons of all viewpoints are full members in the school community."

Lawyers for those who challenged the disclaimer disagreed. "By disclaiming only evolution — the one element of the school curriculum that generates religious controversy — the school board has violated both the constitutional mandate of neutrality toward religion and its obligation to provide its students with secular educations free from religious indoctrination or partisanship," they said.

They noted that the disclaimer was drafted shortly after the school board voted 5-4 to reject a proposal to teach "creation-science" in the district's schools.

Creation-science teaches that Earth and most life forms came into existence suddenly about 6,000 years ago. Critics have attacked it as a disguise for a literal translation of the Book of Genesis.

Evolution, first propounded by Charles Darwin, states that Earth is billions of years old, and that life forms developed gradually several million years ago.

The Supreme Court in the 1987 case Edwards v. Aguillard barred states from requiring the teaching of creationism in public schools where evolution was taught, calling the Louisiana law at the center of the case a thinly veiled attempt to promote religion.

The teaching of evolution has been controversial since the famous 1925 "monkey law" trial in which teacher John Scopes was convicted and fined $100 for teaching evolution when Tennessee law made it a crime to teach anything but the Biblical version of creation.

Scopes' conviction later was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court on a procedural matter, and never reached the nation's highest court.

Writing for the court's three dissenters today, Scalia criticized the court for standing by while an appeals court "bars a school district from even suggesting to students that other theories besides evolution — including but not limited to, the biblical theory of creation — are worthy of their consideration."

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