For today’s political observation, I want to talk about a law that was recently passed in Arkansas. According to the Arkansas Times, there is a new bill that easily passed in the state House called House Bill 1701 (HB1701), said bill would allow for the teaching of Creationism as a theory of existence in science classes.
Now, at face value, this seems quite outlandish and almost a blatant mixture of church and state. However, there are some things to unpack here that make the situation legally foggy.
First, The Establishment Clause. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment states that no state can make any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” According to the Free Speech Center at MTSU, this clause has been frequently used as the basis for separation of church and state.
However, the Arkansas law walks in a grey area with regards to the Establishment Clause. The law does not require teachers to teach any creationist theories, it merely allows them to. Therefore, the law doesn’t directly conflict with the Supreme Court Case of Epperson v. Arkansas, which held that Arkansas’s law criminalizing evolution in public schools was unconstitutional due to the establishment clause.
Also, unlike the standard set in the Supreme Court Case of Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987, the new law allows creationism to be only introduced as a theory alongside evolution and at the teacher’s discretion. Edwards v. Aguillard ruled that mandating the teaching of creationism was unconstitutional, however HB1701 would only allow teachers to present creationism alongside evolution.
Lastly, when examining the standards set by the supreme court in past cases involving creationism, the rulings from the 1980s state that states cannot teach creationism in any way that is devotional. Citing from the First Amendment Encyclopedia: “Teachers can discuss creationism and controversies that involve religious topics, but if they do so they must present these topics in a non devotional context that does not endorse any particular religion so that students of all faiths can attend school without a sense of coercion.”
As long as teachers willingly teach creationism by walking the thin line set forth by the non devotional statute, it seems HB1701 will endure the inevitable legal challenges ahead.