Dr. Egnor has half-heartedly responded to my post (without mentioning it) in a post in which he rightly condemns the attempt by Oklahoma Representative Todd Thomsen to express legislative disapproval of the University of Oklahoma’s invitation to Richard Dawkins. (Egnor is wrong to describe this as censorship—it would be dumb and embarrassing, but not censorship, for the legislature to express this opinion—but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume his heart’s in the right place.) But, unsurprisingly, he goes on to employ sloppy language to mask what is either ignorance or an intentional effort of distortion regarding the Constitutional issues I mentioned in my previous post.
Both the Darwinist and the non-Darwinist viewpoints in the evolution debate have religious presuppositions and implications, but the First Amendment guarantees the right to free expression of religion (for theists no less than for atheists) and the First Amendment guarantees the right to freedom of speech. The citizens in a school district have the right to exercise these rights through the normal process of curriculum development.
Notice the rather clumsy sleight-of-hand here. The First Amendment guarantees the rights of free speech and freedom of religion to individuals—it does not guarantee that the government has a right to speech or religion. On the contrary, it explicitly denies the latter. As individuals, all citizens may express their religious beliefs. But once elected to public office, they may not employ the state to develop curricula that propagate their religious beliefs in government classrooms. On the contrary, public officials have a duty to refrain from doing so, since they are sworn to uphold a Constitution that forbids the establishment of religion.
This sleight-of-hand maneuver is typical of religious conservatives, who frequently complain that their religious freedom is being violated when they are told that they may not force others to obey their religious views, or that they may not stamp their preferred dogmas with the government’s seal of approval. Yes, all people have a right to their religious views. That does not entitle them to “exercise these rights through the normal process of curriculum development.” For them to do the latter—for them to impose their religious views in government schools at taxpayer expense—is a violation of the rights of dissenters not to be compelled to subsidize religious viewpoints they disagree with, or to have their children taught religious views they disapprove.
Once we keep that fundamental distinction in mind—the difference between the First Amendment rights of individuals on one hand, and the legitimate powers of government officials, including public school curriculum committees, on the other—the rest of Egnor’s argument dissolves before our eyes. He writes,
I believe that people in public schools have a constitutional right, under the First Amendment, to freedom of speech regarding Darwin’s theory. That right is held by the citizens in a school district, acting through their elected school boards and other representatives.
Certainly the free speech clause of the First Amendment protects the right of individuals to express their views about evolution! That includes students (nondisruptively) in government-run classrooms. If a student wants to say that he doesn’t believe in evolution, then he has the legal right to do so in a government-run classroom, and any attempt to punish him (assuming, again, he is not disrupting legitimate classroom activities) is a violation of the First Amendment. Nobody that I know of has claimed otherwise. It is also true that citizens in a school district and elected officials have a similar right, in their capacity as private citizens. But no elected official or school board has the right to use taxpayer money to propagate a religious viewpoint, including the ID theory that Dr. Egnor himself describes as “creationism.” Nor does the First Amendment entitle a government-employed teacher to disregard the established lesson plans in order to proselytize to students.
Neither side in this debate is free of metaphysical and religious bias [on this, see my article, Reason And Common Ground], but discussion of the weaknesses as well as the strengths of Darwin’s theory in public schools obviously isn’t an “Establishment of Religion.” A teacher’s classroom comments about gaps in the fossil record have little in common with Henry the VIII’s establishment of the Church of England.
Unsurprisingly, this sentence again uses ambiguity to mask the real issue. To discuss evolution in a classroom is not an establishment of religion, no. But to teach the (non-existent) “weaknesses” of evolution in a government classroom is almost always (a) contrary to the lesson plan—and therefore a violation of a teacher’s employment contract—or (b) in reality an attempt to teach creationism to school children as true.
The Establishment Clause forbids the government from declaring any religious viewpoint to be true. Creationism, which is a religious doctrine, may not be taught to school children in government-operated schools. To teach a religious viewpoint—such as that God created life—in government classrooms, taught by government employees, is to put the government’s imprimatur on that religious viewpoint and in violation of the Establishment Clause. If people want to make these arguments as private citizens, they have every right to do so. What they may not do, and what the First Amendment, contrary to Egnor’s argument, expressly disallows, is to make these arguments as spokesmen for the state, on the taxpayer’s dime.
It is true that there are many differences between the way Henry VIII ran his government, and the effort by today’s creationists to teach religion as true in government classrooms. But the central principle remains the use of the state to promote a religious doctrine as official truth. And it is because of what that led to under the Tudor and Stuart monarchies, that such efforts are today forbidden by the Establishment Clause—a protection that Dr. Egnor and his fellow creationists are seeking to undo in principle. Egnor’s arguments, like the entire Intelligent Design movement, are lame attempts to propagate religious ideas in government-funded, government-operated classrooms.