Case Summary and Outcome
The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Louisiana Court of Appeals which in turn had upheld the District Court’s finding that Louisiana’s “Creationism Act” violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
The Appellees who included Louisiana parents, teachers, and religious leaders, challenged the Act’s constitutionality on the grounds that it prohibited the teaching of evolutionary theory in the public schools unless teaching evolution was ‘balanced’ by teaching “creation science”, a Biblical belief which holds that advanced forms of life appeared abruptly on Earth as a result of divine creation.
The Court reasoned that the Louisiana law did not further its stated secular purpose of “protecting academic freedom”; advanced the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind; and significantly entangled the interests of church and state by seeking “the symbolic and financial support of government to achieve a religious purpose.” In so doing it failed all three prongs of the Establishment Clause “test” set out in Lemon v. Kurtzman and violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
Louisiana’s legislature passed a law entitled the “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act”, or the “Creationism Act”, which prohibited the teaching of evolutionary theory in public elementary and secondary schools unless teaching evolution was ‘balanced’ by teaching “creation science”. Creation Science is a Biblical belief which holds that advanced forms of life appeared abruptly on Earth as a result of divine creation. The Creationism Act defined evolutionary and creation theories as “the scientific evidences for [creation or evolution] and inferences from those scientific evidences.”
Schools were not forced to teach creation science or evolutionary theory. However, if either topic was to be addressed, evolution or creation, teachers were obligated to discuss the other as well.
A group of litigants comprising Louisiana parents, teachers, and religious leaders, challenged the Act’s constitutionality in Federal District Court, seeking an injunction and declaratory relief. The District Court granted summary judgment to the Appellees, holding that the Act violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The Louisiana officials charged with implementing the Act then filed the present appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Louisiana’s Creationism Act on the grounds that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Justice Brennan wrote the majority opinion for the Court. Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion, which Justice Rehnquist joined.
The Court found that Louisiana’s Creationism Act could not withstand the three-prong test for government entanglement with religion set out in the seminal Establishment Clause case of Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, as applicable to the states through the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, requires that states not enact laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” To that end, the so-called ‘Lemon Test’ requires that a government action affecting religion (1) must have a secular purpose, (2) must neither advance nor inhibit religion, and (3) must not foster excessive government entanglement with religion. The Court found that Louisiana’s Creationism Act failed all three prongs.
First, the Court found that the Creationism Act did not have any clearly identifiable secular purpose. Second, the law impermissibly promoted religion by requiring that a belief central to the dogmas of certain religious denominations, namely, the belief that “a supernatural being created humankind”, be taught alongside a theory that was independent of religious denominations; finally, having established that the Act had a religious purpose, the Court held that it impermissibly entangled government with religion by requiring that the government symbolically and financially support that religious purpose. Accordingly, and because any one of the three prongs would have been sufficient to strike down the Act, the Court found that the Louisiana’s Creationism Act violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion, which Justice Rehnquist joined. Scalia argued that, first, the case was never properly considered by the Louisiana Supreme Court, which was a more appropriate venue for the constitutional question. Second, the Court’s finding that the Act “advanced religion” was improper, because according to Scalia, there are “only two possible explanations” for the origin of humankind, and the Act merely required that neither explanation be privileged over the other. Finally, Scalia argued that the Court impermissibly invalidated the Creationism Act on that grounds that the Louisiana legislature had an improper motive or “purpose”; Scalia argued that it is not the Court’s place to determine the motives of the legislature, and that the “purpose” prong of the Lemon test was established in error.