You are here

Official Opinion 96-6

Official Opinion 96-6

March 12, 1996
To: 

State Superintendent of Schools

Re: 

Teaching of Creationism in Public Schools.

This is in response to your letter of February 19, 1996, in which you pose three questions regarding whether creationism {1} could, or should, be included in the science curriculum in Georgia's public schools. Although I will address each of your questions separately below, I should point out that the United States Supreme Court has generally greeted the issue of teaching creationism in the public schools with a great deal of skepticism, and any effort to either promote the teaching of creationism or restrict the teaching of evolution as a scientific theory will necessarily be fraught with constitutional pitfalls. See Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 107 S. Ct. 2573, 96 L. Ed. 2d 510 (1987).

1. "Can creationism be taught as a part of science curriculum in Georgia?"

The decision in Aguillard, cited above, instructs that while states and local school boards are generally afforded considerable latitude in operating public schools, 482 U.S. at

583, the Supreme Court "has been particularly vigilant in monitoring compliance with the Establishment Clause in elementary and secondary schools." Id. at 583-84. To withstand an Establishment Clause challenge, a state statute, policy or action (1) must have a secular purpose; (2) must, as its primary effect, neither advance nor inhibit religion; and (3) must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion. Peloza v. Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist., 37 F.3d 517, 520 (9th Cir. 1994), citing Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-13, 91 S. Ct. 2105, 2111, 29 L. Ed. 2d 745 (1971).

In Aguillard, the Supreme Court struck down the Louisiana Creationism Act because it found that the Act advanced a religious doctrine "by requiring either the banishment of the theory of evolution from public school classrooms or the presentation of a religious viewpoint [creationism] that rejects evolution in its entirety." 482 U.S. at 596. Since the theory of creation science "embodies a particular religious tenet," the Court held that the teaching of creationism under the Act would "advance a particular religious belief" or otherwise endorse a particular religion in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Id. at 593.

In view of the foregoing, it is my opinion that various theories regarding the origin of humankind may be validly taught in the public schools only if there is a "clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction." {2} Aguillard, 482 U.S. at 594 (emphasis added). Accordingly, creationism or creation science as a theory of the origin of matter, life, and the world may be referenced so long as it is with a secular intent to enhance the effectiveness of science instruction, but such theory may not be otherwise promoted or advanced given its inherently religious nature.

2. "If evolution is taught, should we balance the curriculum with creationism or refer this matter to parents?"

To the extent your second question presents a legal, as opposed to policy, question, the Supreme Court has clearly held that states may not require that the teaching of evolution be "balanced" by the teaching of creationism. See Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 106-07 (1968); Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 593 (1987).

3. "If we teach only evolution, we are at cross purposes with what many parents teach at home and certainly what is taught in our churches. Do we have the right to do so?"

As with question two above, I respond to this question purely from a legal, rather than policy, perspective. The State Board of Education currently has the authority to establish the core curriculum and the local systems are authorized to expand and enrich it. O.C.G.A. § 20-2-140. There is no prohibition against a local school system authorizing teachers to exercise academic freedom or "supplant the present science curriculum with the presentation of theories, besides evolution, about the origin of life." Aguillard, 482 U.S. at 587. In short, teachers may teach only evolution or they may teach other theories concerning the origin of life, but the decision about what to teach must have a secular purpose and teachers may not intentionally endorse religion or a religious practice in their teachings. Id.

Prepared by:

JEFF L. MILSTEEN
Deputy Attorney General


{1}"Creationism" generally refers to the doctrine or theory which holds that "matter, the various forms of life, and the world were created by a transcendent God out of nothing." Similarly, "creation science" generally refers to the "religious belief that a supernatural creator was responsible for the creation of humankind." Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. at 592, 598 (citing Webster's Third New International Dictionary 532 (unabridged 1981)).

{2}The Court also pointed out that the state's articulation of a secular purpose must be "sincere and not a sham." Aguillard, 482 U.S. at 587.