The teaching evolution is back in the news, in a case that the media—with their usual sensationalism—are comparing to the Scopes trial of 75 years ago. On August 10, Steven Green, legal director of the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sent a letter to the Kansas State Board of Education, threatening that if the board adopted a “creationist perspective” in the state’s science standards, his group would “not hesitate to bring a legal challenge.” On August 11, by a six-to-four majority, the statewide-elected board decided to remove any questions on “macroevolution” (the theory that maintains generally that species evolve from one another, and that, in particular, men and apes have a common primate ancestor) from state science exams. The board did not remove questions on “microevolution” (the theory that species themselves evolve as result of environmental factors) or “natural selection” (the theory that some species or some variations within species die while others survive as a result of better adaptation to the natural environment). The board left the 304 local school districts in Kansas free to decide for themselves whether they would continue to teach macroevolution, microevolution, and/or natural selection.

On August 13, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote to Kansas local school superintendents warning them that they would risk lawsuits if they should attempt to teach “creationism” (the theory that the world and each species were created by God, rather than being the result of an unpremeditated evolutionary series of natural accidents). People for the American Way, according to the Associated Press, also suggested that “they would consider lawsuits if religion-based standards were implemented.”

Most local school districts barely have the funds to accomplish the educational goals they set for themselves, and the threat of a lawsuit, which could easily cost a district hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, is a potent one. In the meantime, the nation’s newspapers were full of articles ridiculing Kansas, accusing the state of possessing a “flat earth” mentality, of hurting its students on national aptitude examinations, and, most damningly, of having caved in to irrational religious fundamentalism. Intriguingly enough, most press reports failed to mention the limited nature of what had been done (preserving local autonomy in teaching, preserving microevolution and natural selection on statewide examinations) and were little more than “sky is falling” incantations against the purported prairie yahoos.

What was going on? Nothing less, really, than a preemptive strike by the forces of liberal secularism and centralization seeking to stem a ground swell in the states to take back the education of their children from the supervision of the United States Supreme Court in particular and the federal government in general. In the early 1960’s, the Supreme Court ruled (clearly against a century of American tradition and the Framers’ design) that the states could not require prayers or Bible-reading in their schools, and in 1987, in Edwards v. Aguillard, the Court ruled, in an opinion by arch-liberal activist William Brennan, that Louisiana could not mandate the teaching of creationism alongside evolution because to do so would be an establishment of religion prohibited by the First Amendment. Close readers of American history and the First Amendment (and this journal) know that the text of that amendment is directed only at Congress, not the states, and at the time the First Amendment was ratified, there actually were several established state churches and 11 states with religious qualifications for the franchise or for serving in public office. Still, using the dubious “selective incorporation” theory (which has rather less support in the historical record than does evolution in the fossil record), the Supreme Court, in the early 20th century, declared that the 14th Amendment (which forbids states from depriving any person of the “equal protection” of the laws or of life, liberty, or property without “due process”) somehow turned the First Amendment (and other provisions of the Bill of Rights) from a protection against the federal government into a club that the federal courts could use to beat back state government.

There can be no doubt, however, that the Constitution’s Framers, and even the framers of the 14th Amendment, did not intend to change the long-standing Anglo- American tradition that local governments are best equipped to handle domestic matters such as education, and even the Supreme Court, in its 1995 U.S. v. Lopez decision, reaffirmed this truth when it declared unconstitutional a federal law prohibiting the possession of firearms in or near local schools on the grounds that school security was a local, not a federal, matter.

The friends of local government and the enemies of secularism and centralization have been somewhat emboldened by Lopez and by closely reading some language in Brennan’s opinion in Aguillard, where he acknowledged that “Teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to schoolchildren might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction,” as well as Justice Scalia’s statement in his dissent in Aguillard that “The people of Louisiana, including those who are Christian fundamentalists, are quite entitled, as a secular matter to have whatever scientific evidence there may be against evolution presented in their schools. . . .” One can only hope that conservatives will refuse to cave in to the bullying tactics of the left, and perhaps find the funds and the courage to meet them on their own ground.

The scientific support for the theory of macroevolution is weak; there are, for example, a plethora of what seem to be spontaneously created species to be found in the fossil record of the Cambrian period. Philip Johnson, the Berkeley law professor who has exposed the thinness of the scientific evidence on which proponents of macroevolution rely, reports that a Chinese paleontologist who lectures on these fossils states that “In China we can criticize Darwin but not the government. In America you can criticize the government but not Darwin.” To criticize Darwin, to challenge macroevolution, even to remove mandatory questions on the subject from statewide exams in a Midwestern state is enough to rattle the chains of the nine percent of Americans who disdain the notion that a governing intelligence created the universe and may still be in control. That nine percent, which has managed of late to prevail in the federal courts, may soon have some serious battles on their hands, and it is no wonder they appear to be running scared. The Kansas skirmish shows that it isn’t creationism that they fear, but democracy.