FAQ: Would teaching intelligent design violate the Establishment Clause of First Amendment of the Constitution?
The Long Answer:
Federal courts do not allow state or federal governments to "establish" a religion. This comes from the First Amendment of the United States Constitution which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…" The most common constitutional test employed by the United States Supreme Court to determine if the state or federal governments have "established" a religion is the "Lemon Test:"
In Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana "balanced treatment" law which mandated the teaching of "creation-science" whenever "evolution-science" was being taught. Interestingly, the reason the Court struck down the law was because it failed "first prong" of the Lemon Test, namely that it had not been enacted for a "secular legislative purpose." The Louisiana State Senator who had sponsored the bill had explicitly stated that he felt that evolution conflicted with his religious beliefs and supported the teaching of creationism for the purpose of teaching something that did not conflict with his religious beliefs. While this "legislative purpose" prong has been highly criticized (many have noted that religious motives do not necessarily undermine the social utility of a law--religion has historically motivated many social goods from the eradication of slavery to welfare support for the poor to the modern civil rights movement), there is no need for a law advocating the teaching of intelligent design to be premised on any perceived conflicts between evolution and some religious beliefs. A statute passed for the purpose of enhancing student learning about origins and allowing a more effective teaching of the nature of historical scientific investigation, could easily require the teaching of intelligent design yet be enacted for an entirely secular legislative purpose.
Secondly, it should be noted that the law struck down in this case dealt with creationism. The Court pointed out that creationism, "embodies the religious belief that a supernatural creator was responsible for the creation of humankind." (Edwards v. Aguillard, emphasis added). Thus, creationism represented a religious belief because it explicitly postulated that a supernatural being, God, created humanity. This stands in stark contrast with intelligent design theory which simply argues that life contains the sort of information we find when intelligent agents act. Intelligent design does not (and cannot) seek to identity the designer, but simply can detect the tell-tale signs of design in the past. Intelligent design makes no statements about the supernatural for it, like any scientific theory, cannot address metaphysical questions such as the nature of the supernatural realm. Thus, intelligent design is different from creationism in this crucial aspect: creationism does postulate a supernatural creator, and intelligent design simply detects that life was designed, but cannot state anything about the metaphysical nature of the designer.
The majority in Edwards. v. Aguillard did provide a framework under which a legislature might pass an acceptable bill regarding the teaching of science:
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