Teaching the Controversy: What's Legal?

Accompanies the Viewer's Guide, Chapter 7-C, "Controversy in a Public High School" and Chapter 7-D, "The Lafayette School Board"


All too often, controversial subjects are marked by an abundance of sound bites and a relative dearth of substantive, carefully reasoned debate. That's understandable, considering the public's demand for cogent, quickly digestible information. But saying that this is understandable is not the same as saying that it's good. Sound bites are a very poor basis for understanding important issues--or making important decisions.

In this exercise, students will be asked to dig deeper on the constitutional issues related to teaching origins in public-school classrooms.

Learning Objectives
  • Students will be able to describe some key scientific criticisms of Darwinism.
  • Students will be able to assess whether presenting criticisms of Darwinism in public school classrooms violates the First Amendment.
  • Students will be able to describe some core concepts of Intelligent Design theory and assess whether they are scientific or religious.
  • Students will be able to assess whether presenting Intelligent Design in public school classrooms violates the First Amendment.

Go over the following handout with the students. Give them a due date that works best with your schedule, taking into account your students' abilities. If you wish, when the students have completed their reports, set aside a class session for a class discussion/debate on the following questions:

    • From what you've learned in doing your reports, were Mr. Spokes's plans to teach the origins controversy legally sound?
    • Why or why not?
Teaching the Controversy: What's Legal?

All too often, controversial subjects are marked by too many sound bites and too few thoughtful arguments. That's not surprising, given the public's demand for dramatic, quickly digestible information. But is that a good way to understand important issues? Are sound bites a good basis for making important decisions?

In this assignment, you will get the chance to dig deeper on the question of how the origins controversy should be taught in the public schools. In an article titled, "Teaching the Origins Controversy" (see list of sources), the article's authors describe a fictitious science teacher who wants to make some changes in the way he teachers evolution in his classroom. The science teacher, John Spokes, wants to:

  • 1) Correct blatant factual errors in his textbook that overstate the evidential case for neo-Darwinism.
  • 2) Tell students about the evidential challenges to these theories that current textbooks fail to mention.
  • 3) Define the term "evolution" without equivocation and to distinguish clearly between those senses of the term that enjoy widespread support among scientists and those that remain controversial, even if only among a minority of scientists.
  • 4) Tell his students that a growing minority of scientists do see evidence of real, not just apparent, design in biological systems.

Using the article and the other sources listed at the end of this handout, write a report that answers the following questions:

Is It Science? Are Spokes's intended changes in his biology curriculum scientific? Is his plan to correct and critique textbook presentations of neo-Darwinism scientific? Are the alternative theories that Spokes wants to present (including the theory of intelligent design) scientific?

Is It Religion? Does Spokes's plan to correct and critique textbook presentations of neo-Darwinism constitute an establishment of religion? Does Spokes's plan to expose his students to evidence of design and design theory qualify as teaching religion? Does the First Amendment prevent the presentation of this point of view?

Is It Speech? Are Spokes's plans to correct and critique textbook presentations of neo-Darwinism, and to expose students to the alternative theory of intelligent design, protected under the First Amendment?


Use the following sources to answer the questions for this report. If you wish, you may also read through some of the United States Supreme Court decisions mentioned in these sources. A good place to find the text of these decisions is at www.findlaw.org. When you go to the site, enter the name of the case in the top left-hand text box, using all uppercase letters, except for the "v". For example, if you want to read the Supreme Court's decision on Louisiana's "balanced-treatment" law, you would enter "EDWARDS v. AGUILLARD" in the search box. Then select "US Supreme Court" from the pull-down menu box on the right and click the "Search" button.

  • David K. DeWolf, Stephen C. Meyer and Mark Edward DeForrest. "Teaching the Origins Controversy: Science, Or Religion, Or Speech?" Utah Law Review 39 (2000).
  • David K. DeWolf, Stephen C. Meyer, Mark E. DeForrest. Intelligent Design in Public School Science Curricula: A Legal Guidebook. Richardson, Texas: Foundation for Thought and Ethics, 1999.
  • Creationism v. Evolution: Will Religion or Science Prevail? On Justice Talking, from National Public Radio. Audio debate between Prof. David K. DeWolf, of the Gonzaga School of Law in Spokane, Wash. and Eugenie C. Scott, of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif.