Debate Forum Left, 8/16/11

Mike Brickner Mike Brickner

When put to the test, the Constitution always passes

By Mike Brickner
Communications and public policy director, ACLU of Ohio

Mike Brickner

First, the facts: efforts to replace or critique the teaching of evolution in public schools using religious beliefs are clearly unconstitutional. They have been seen as such by a plethora of state and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

This is not a gray area. This is established constitutional law. It would be irresponsible, financially and intellectually, for any school system to argue otherwise.

So, in that sense, creationism cannot be taught in public schools, not legally anyway.

But should creationism be taught in public schools?

Not if you believe in the principles of the Constitution.

It’s interesting — creationists often like to paint you a picture of a magical time in the past, a time vaguely between World War II and Vietnam, when small public schools in neighborhoods with white picket fences were free to teach the virtues of Christianity; a time when God was still present in our lives, before the wave of atheists forced him out. Of course a few things get left out of their story. Things like poll taxes and race riots, McCarthyism and political assassinations and the fact that, according to Baylor University, the “wave” of self-proclaimed atheists in this country has been stagnant for 63 years.

Still, for people inclined to believe it, it’s not hard to conjure up the notion that the absence of God from our schools, and more broadly, our lives, is exactly what’s ailing our nation; that Christianity is under siege in America, and the public schools are the front line in the battle.

I single out this religion because creationism is inextricably bound to a particularly American brand of fundamentalist Christianity. It’s their stories, their traditions and their skepticism of science that dominate the creationist argument.

For proof, consider this. Although there are as many religious creation stories as there are religions, no creationist, so far as I know, has ever advocated teaching your young science student the Hopi Indian creation story, (which involves climbing a giant bamboo pole and eventually emerging into the world at a place widely believed to be the site of the modern Grand Canyon). Nor do they advocate the very elegant teachings of the Buddha, who made little pretense about knowing how the world was created and actually considered such worldly concerns a hindrance to spiritual growth.

No, creationists are content to keep these ideas in the realm of history, theology and philosophy, where they belong. It’s only their creation story that belongs in science class.

So let’s be clear. When we talk about “creationism” we are talking about an organized effort to inject a specific subset of hard-line Judeo-Christian theology into the public school science curriculum.

I think it’s important to remember that many of our forefathers came from continents that had spilled rivers of blood over theology. They didn’t need to open history books to learn about the kinds of horrible wounds a theocracy can inflict on society. They saw it with their own eyes and they took active measures against it.

Beyond arguments of pure religious fervor, some have argued that creationist beliefs have scientific merit; that they should be taught in science class in order to add context to some perceived scientific debate. This is disingenuous at best, and here’s why:

The words “scientific debate” imply that a form of the scientific method (the forming, testing and peer-review of hypotheses to gain academic consensus) is somehow involved. The thing is, it isn’t.

Even by the most generous assessment, creationism has nothing to do with science; it is based on ancient supernatural explanations for natural phenomenon, passed down through generations and taken largely on faith. It’s not so much a debate for these folks as it is a cultural conflict. And whatever it is, it’s certainly not “scientific” in nature. It’s hard-line religious dogma lashing out at science, as it has for hundreds of years, from the time of Galileo to the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Religion is not under attack. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Contrary to what some would have you believe, opponents of creationism are not all atheists. Opposition to creationism in public schools is based on the fundamental truth that our Constitution, the document that defines us as a nation, also binds us to the principle that the people’s government will not promote any one religion’s teachings over another. Not even a little bit.

It’s really as simple as that.

Faith does not have to be the enemy of science, but it is most certainly not the same thing. True religion has nothing to lose by letting science do its job. Religion really has nothing to lose at all, except for political power. Which brings us to the heart of the matter, doesn’t it? Creationism isn’t really about faith at all. It’s politico-religious grandstanding masquerading as education.

Luckily our Constitution does not play these kinds of games.

During his seven-year tenure at the ACLU, Mike Brickner has worked on a variety of critical civil liberties campaigns. Recently he was named a Sue B. Mercy Fellow with Humanity in Action, an international non-profit organization. He received his Master’s degree in psychology from Cleveland State University’s Diversity Management Program and his Bachelor’s degree from Hiram College. Reach DCP guest writer Mike Brickner at

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