Planet Earth

23 Years Ago in Discover: Creationism

By Anne CasselmanAug 6, 2005 5:00 AM


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In March 1981 Arkansas governor Frank White signed legislation requiring that “creation science” and evolution be given parity in the state’s public schools. Educators, teachers, taxpayers, and bishops and clergy of nine religious denominations, including Roman Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Jews, promptly challenged the “Balanced Treatment Act” in federal court in Little Rock, arguing that it was a violation of the separation of church and state as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. After a lengthy trial, Judge William Overton struck down the act. In his 38-page decision (in which he quoted from a letter that had appeared in Discover), he wrote, “No group . . . may use the organs of government, of which the public schools are the most conspicuous and influential, to foist its religious beliefs on others.”

In February 1982, Discover made the Arkansas case its cover story, “Darwin on Trial.” In a five-page article, staff writer James Gorman made no effort to hide his bias against the creationists. “Gorman’s story, like our previous articles on the subject, has a definite point of view and is not likely to sit well with scientific creationists,” Discover managing editor Leon Jaroff told readers. “But, if a science magazine does not take a stand on issues like those realized in Little Rock, then who will? For it is not only evolution that was under attack in Arkansas, but geology, biology, chemistry, cosmology, and indeed, all of science. And to undermine science, especially when the United States is beginning to lose its leadership in technology and even in some areas of research, is to undermine America.”

In 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Louisiana decision similar to Overton’s, stating that such laws imply “state endorsement of a religious view.” Yet evolution and Darwinism are as much under attack today as in the 1980s. As Discover went to press, a subcommittee of the Kansas State Board of Education was considering new curriculum standards that raise questions about evolution in biology classes and encourage teachers to lead discussions on “alternative explanations,” as they do now in Ohio. One such alternative is “intelligent design,” which posits that a powerful force, not natural selection, created the mechanisms of life.

Since the Arkansas case, Discover has published numerous articles on evolution. While we have not issued any more direct statements on the topic, our position remains unchanged from that of 23 years ago. “In opposing the Arkansas law, Discover is not attacking religious beliefs, as some letters to the editors have charged,” Jaroff wrote. “Indeed, we have a profound respect for religion as an important force in our lives. But like the majority of America’s clergymen, we respect the wisdom of our forefathers in writing into the Constitution an unambiguous mandate for the separation of church and state.”

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