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Edwards v. Aguillard

Edwards v. Aguillard
Argued December 10, 1986
Decided June 19, 1987
Full case name Edwin W. Edwards, Governor of Louisiana, et al., Appellants v. Don Aguillard et al.
Citations 482 U.S. 578 (more)
107 S. Ct. 2573; 96 L. Ed. 2d 510; 1987 U.S. LEXIS 2729; 55 U.S.L.W. 4860
Argument Oral argument
Teaching creationism in public schools is unconstitutional because it attempts to advance a particular religion.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Brennan, joined by Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, Stevens, O'Connor (all but part II)
Concurrence Powell, joined by O'Connor
Concurrence White (in the judgment of the court only)
Dissent Scalia, joined by Rehnquist

Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987) was a legal case about the teaching of creationism that was heard by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1987. The Court ruled that a Louisiana law requiring that creation science be taught in public schools, along with evolution, was unconstitutional because the law was specifically intended to advance a particular religion. It also held that "teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to school children might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction."

In support of Aguillard, 72 amicus briefs which described creation science as being composed of religious tenets.


  • Background 1
  • Opinion 2
  • Dissent 3
  • Consequences and aftermath 4
  • Related cases 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9


Modern American creationism arose out of the theological split over modernist higher criticism and its rejection by the Fundamentalist Christian movement which promoted Biblical literalism and, post 1920, took up the anti-evolution cause led by William Jennings Bryan. Teaching of evolution had become a common part of the public school curriculum, but his campaign was based on the idea that “Darwinism” had caused German militarism and was a threat to traditional religion and morality. Several states passed legislation to ban or restrict the teaching of evolution. The Tennessee Butler Act was tested in the Scopes Trial of 1925, and continued in effect with the result that evolution was not taught in many schools.[2]

When the United States sought to catch up in science during the 1960s with new teaching standards which reintroduced evolution, the creation science movement arose, presenting what was claimed to be scientific evidence supporting young earth creationism. Attempts were made to reintroduce legal bans, but the Supreme Court ruled that bans on teaching evolutionary biology are unconstitutional as they violate the establishment clause of the United States Constitution, which forbids the government from advancing a particular religion.[2]

In the early 1980s several states attempted to introduce creationism along with teaching of evolution, and the Louisiana legislature passed a law, authored by State Senator Bill P. Keith of Caddo Parish, entitled the "Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act."[3] The Act did not require teaching either creationism or evolution, but did require that if evolutionary science was taught then "creation science" must be taught as well.[4] Creationists lobbied aggressively for the law. The stated purpose of the Act was to protect "academic freedom."[5] Counsel for the state later admitted at the Supreme Court oral argument that the "legislature may not [have] used the term 'academic freedom' in the correct legal sense. They might have [had] in mind, instead, a basic concept of fairness; teaching all the evidence." Governor David C. Treen signed the bill into law in 1981.

The District Court and Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Louisiana, finding that its actual purpose in enacting the statute was to promote the religious doctrine of "creation science." An Arkansas District Court previously held in a 1982 decision in McLean v. Arkansas that a similar "balanced treatment" statute violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Arkansas did not appeal the loss. Creationists believed the statute at issue in Edwards v. Aguillard had a better chance of passing constitutional muster, and so Louisiana appealed its loss in the trial and appellate courts to the Supreme Court.


On June 19, 1987 the Supreme Court, in a seven to two majority opinion written by Justice William J. Brennan, ruled that the Act constituted an unconstitutional infringement on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, based on the three-pronged Lemon test, which is:

  1. The government's action must have a legitimate secular purpose;
  2. The government's action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion; and
  3. The government's action must not result in an "excessive entanglement" of the government and religion.

The Supreme Court held that the Act is facially invalid as violative of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, because it lacks a clear secular purpose (first test of the above Lemon test), since (a)the Act does not further its stated secular purpose of "protecting academic freedom." and (b) the Act impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind.[6]

However it did note that alternative scientific theories could be taught:

We do not imply that a legislature could never require that scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories be taught. . . . Teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to schoolchildren might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction.

The Court found that, although the Louisiana legislature had stated that its purpose was to "protect academic freedom," that purpose was dubious because the Act gave Louisiana teachers no freedom they did not already possess and instead limited their ability to determine what scientific principles should be taught. Because it was unconvinced by the state's proffered secular purpose, the Court went on to find that the legislature had a "preeminent religious purpose in enacting this statute."


Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, dissented, accepting the Act's stated purpose of "protecting academic freedom" as a sincere and legitimate secular purpose.[7] They construed the term "academic freedom" to refer to "students' freedom from indoctrination", in this case their freedom "to decide for themselves how life began, based upon a fair and balanced presentation of the scientific evidence". However, they also criticized the first prong of the Lemon test, noting that "to look for the sole purpose of even a single legislator is probably to look for something that does not exist".

Consequences and aftermath

The ruling was one in a series of developments addressing issues related to the American creationist movement and the separation of church and state. The scope of the ruling affected state schools and did not include independent schools, home schools, Sunday schools and Christian schools, all of whom remained free to teach creationism.

During the case, development of a creationist biology textbook continued with hopes of a huge market if the appeal went their way. Drafts were given various titles, including Biology and Creation. After the Edwards v. Aguillard ruling, the authors changed the terms "creation" and "creationists" in the text to "intelligent design" and "design proponents", and the book was published as Of Pandas and People. This supplementary textbook for school use attacked evolutionary biology without mentioning the identity of the supposed "intelligent designer". [8] Promotion of intelligent design creationism by the intelligent design movement eventually led to use of the textbook in a school district being challenged in another court case. Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District went to trial on 26 September 2005, and was decided in U.S. District Court on 20 December 2005 in favor of the plaintiffs, who charged that a mandate that intelligent design be taught was an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The 139 page opinion of Kitzmiller v. Dover was hailed as a landmark decision, firmly establishing that creationism and intelligent design were religious teachings and not areas of legitimate scientific research. Because the Dover school board chose not to appeal, the case never reached a circuit court or the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wendell Bird served as a special assistant attorney general for Louisiana in the case and later became a staff attorney for the Institute for Creation Research and Association of Christian Schools International.[9] Bird later authored books promoting creationism and teaching it in public schools.

Related cases

See also


  1. ^ Edwards v. Aguillard: Amicus Curiae Brief of 72 Nobel Laureates
  2. ^ a b Scott EC, Matzke NJ (May 2007). "Biological design in science classrooms". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 104 (suppl_1): 8669–76.  
  3. ^ Justice Brennan misnamed the statute as the "Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act" in the majority decision.
  4. ^ RS 17:286.5
  5. ^ RS 17:286.2
  6. ^ Edwards v. Aguillard - 482 U.S. 578 (1987)syllabus
  7. ^ Weisbrod, Carol (2005). "Evolution and Creation Science". In Kermit L. Hall. The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (2nd ed.). Oxford. p. 305.  
  8. ^
  9. ^ "Creationist lawsuit against UC system to proceed".  

Further reading

  • Blewett, Paul F. (1987). "Edwards v. Aguillard: The Supreme Court's Deconstruction of Louisiana's Creationism Statute". Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics, & Public Policy 3: 663.  
  • McClellan, V. F. (1988). "Edwards v. Aguillard: The Creationist-Evolutionist Battle Continues". Oklahoma City University Law Review 13: 631.  
  • Moore, Randy (2004). "How Well Do Biology Teachers Understand the Legal Issues Associated with the Teaching of Evolution?". BioScience 54 (9): 860–865.  

External links

  • Text of Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia  TalkOrigins 
  • Affidavit of Dean H. Kenyon
  • Amicus brief of science organizations and Nobel-Prize winners
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