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Crowley v. Smithsonian Institution: The Government May Promote Scientific Theories That Touch Upon Religious Questions

Crowley v. Smithsonian Institution is another case where a federal court found that the government does not violate the Establishment clause when it advocates evolution. Yet the reasoning the court used to find it permissible to teach evolution could, if applied fairly, also validate the teaching of intelligent design as constitutional.

1. Summary

Plaintiffs sued the Smithsonian Institution, arguing that displays featuring evolution at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History established secular humanism and violated the constitutional mandate requiring the government to remain neutral in matters of religion.70 Plaintiffs requested an order compelling the Smithsonian to "expend an amount equal to the amount extended in the promulgation of the evolutionary theory . . . on the Biblical account of creation found in the Book of Genesis."71 The court found that the displays passed the Lemon test because (1) they had "the secular purpose of 'increasing and diffusing knowledge among men'";72 (2) the primary effect of the exhibit did not advance religion and any effects upon religion were "at most incidental to the primary effect of presenting a body of scientific knowledge";73 and (3) the exhibit did not excessively entangle government and religion because the Museum dealt with evolution as a non-religious subject of natural history.74 Additionally, the court found that the exhibit did not violate the plaintiffs' free exercise of religion because they "can carry their beliefs into the Museum with them, though they risk seeing science exhibits contrary to that faith."75 Quoting Epperson, the court added that "the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them."76 The court argued that if it granted plaintiffs relief, it would be showing preferential "treatment to the religious views of one group."77

2. Importance and Commentary

This lesser-known case follows Wright and Epperson in finding that government advocacy of evolution does not establish religion.78 However, Crowley stands apart from those cases in its high degree of stated sensitivity for the plaintiffs who felt that evolution challenged their religious beliefs. The court told the parties it was "sensitive to plaintiffs' interpretation of the theory of evolution as religion and is aware that they do not stand alone."79 The court thus did not claim there was no offense to the plaintiffs' religious beliefs, but instead argued that "[e]ven accepting their argument that evolution is hostile to their beliefs as to creation, this impact is at most incidental to the primary effect of presenting a body of scientific knowledge."80 Under Crowley, teaching a legitimate scientific theory such as evolution will not establish religion because the primary effect of such a government action will advance scientific knowledge.81 Any effects upon religion are "incidental."82

This doctrine has legal implications for the current controversies over teaching scientific critiques of evolution, and also the controversy over teaching scientific alternatives to evolution, such as intelligent design ("ID"). By the reasoning of Crowley, when teaching legitimate scientific views that dissent from neo-Darwinism, any effects upon religion should be considered "incidental" to the primary effect that would advance scientific knowledge.

[Editor's Note: This survey of Crowley v. Smithsonian Inst. is an excerpt from the article "Does Challenging Darwin Create Constitutional Jeopardy? A Comprehensive Survey of Case Law Regarding the Teaching of Biological Origins," Hamline University Law Review, Vol. 32(1):1-64 (Winter, 2009), published by Hamline University School of Law. This excerpt covers the case Crowley v. Smithsonian Inst.; the full article can be read here.]

References Cited
[70.] Crowley v. Smithsonian Inst., 462 F. Supp. 725 (D.C. 1978) at 726-27.
[71.] Id. at 725.
[72.] Id. at 727 (citing Sch. Dist. of Abington v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963)
(defining secular humanism as "affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion, thus
preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe")).
[73.] Id. at 727.
[74.] Id.
[75.] Crowley, 462 F. Supp. at 728.
[76.] Id. at 727 (citing Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 93, 107 (1968)).
[77.] Id. at 728.
[78.] Id. at 727.
[79.] Id.
[80.] Id.
[81.] See Crowley, 462 F. Supp. at 727.
[82.] Id.; see also DeWolf, West & Luskin, supra note 4, at 46-48.
By the reasoning of Crowley, when teaching legitimate scientific views that dissent from neo-Darwinism, any effects upon religion should be considered "incidental" to the primary effect that would advance scientific knowledge.