Creationists have long battled against the teaching of evolution in U.S. public schools, and their strategies have evolved in reaction to legal setbacks. In the 1920s they attempted to ban the teaching of evolution outright, with laws such as Tennessee’s Butler Act, under which teacher John T. Scopes was prosecuted in 1925. It was not until 1968 that such laws were ruled to be unconstitutional, in the Supreme Court case Epperson v. Arkansas. No longer able to keep evolution out of the science classrooms of the public schools, creationists began to portray creationism as a scientifically credible alternative, dubbing it creation science or scientific creationism. By the early 1980s legislation calling for equal time for creation science had been introduced in no fewer than 27 states, including Louisiana. There, in 1981, the legislature passed the Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act, which required teachers to teach creation science if they taught evolution.
The Louisiana Balanced Treatment Act was based on a model bill circulated across the country by creationists working at the grassroots level. Obviously inspired by a particular literal interpretation of the book of Genesis, the model bill defined creation science as including creation ex nihilo (“from nothing”), a worldwide flood, a “relatively recent inception” of the earth, and a rejection of the common ancestry of humans and apes. In Arkansas, such a bill was enacted earlier in 1981 and promptly challenged in court as unconstitutional. So when the Louisiana Balanced Treatment Act was still under consideration by the state legislature, supporters, anticipating a similar challenge, immediately purged the bill’s definition of creation science of specifics, leaving only “the scientific evidences for creation and inferences from those scientific evidences.” But this tactical vagueness failed to render the law constitutional, and in 1987 the Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard that the Balanced Treatment Act violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, because the act “impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind.”
Creationism adapts quickly. Just two years later a new label for creationism—“intelligent design”—was introduced in the supplementary textbook Of Pandas and People, produced by the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, which styles itself a Christian think tank. Continuing the Louisiana Balanced Treatment Act’s strategy of reducing overt religious content, intelligent design is advertised as not based on any sacred texts and as not requiring any appeal to the supernatural. The designer, the proponents say, might be God, but it might be space aliens or time-traveling cell biologists from the future. Mindful that teaching creationism in the public schools is unconstitutional, they vociferously reject any characterization of intelligent design as a form of creationism. Yet on careful inspection, intelligent design proves to be a rebranding of creationism—silent on a number of creation science’s distinctive claims (such as the young age of the earth and the historicity of Noah’s flood) but otherwise riddled with the same scientific errors and entangled with the same religious doctrines.
Such a careful inspection occurred in a federal courtroom in 2005, in the trial of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. At issue was a policy in a local school district in Pennsylvania requiring a disclaimer to be read aloud in the classroom alleging that evolution is a “Theory...not a fact,” that “gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence,” and that intelligent design as presented in Of Pandas and People is a credible scientific alternative to evolution. Eleven local parents filed suit in federal district court, arguing that the policy was unconstitutional. After a trial that spanned a biblical 40 days, the judge agreed, ruling that the policy violated the Establishment Clause and writing, “In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether [intelligent design] is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that [intelligent design] cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.”
The expert witness testimony presented in the Kitzmiller trial was devastating for intelligent design’s scientific pretensions. Intelligent design was established to be creationism lite: at the trial philosopher Barbara Forrest, co-author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, revealed that references to creationism in Of Pandas and People drafts were replaced with references to design shortly after the 1987 Edwards decision striking down Louisiana’s Balanced Treatment Act was issued. She even found a transitional form, where the replacement of “creationists” by “design proponents” was incomplete—“cdesign proponentsists” was the awkward result. More important, intelligent design was also established to be scientifically bankrupt: one of the expert witnesses in the trial, biochemist Michael Behe, testified that no articles have been published in the scientific research literature that “provide detailed rigorous accounts of how intelligent design of any biological system occurred”—and he was testifying in defense of the school board’s policy.