UC Berkeley Website on Evolution Sued for Violating Establishment Clause

In celebration of the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth (you knew he was born on the same day in 1809 as Abraham Lincoln, right?), I bring you news of our first legal threat directed at an online publisher asserting that a website violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The University of California Museum of Paleontology operates a website entitled Understanding Evolution For Teachers, which is intended as a resource for teaching evolution.  On one of the more than 800 pages on the site, the Museum has a page that attempts to answer the often vexing question of whether evolution and religion are incompatible:

The misconception that one always has to choose between science and religion is incorrect. Of course, some religious beliefs explicitly contradict science (e.g., the belief that the world and all life on it was created in six literal days); however, most religious groups have no conflict with the theory of evolution or other scientific findings. In fact, many religious people, including theologians, feel that a deeper understanding of nature actually enriches their faith. Moreover, in the scientific community there are thousands of scientists who are devoutly religious and also accept evolution.

The page also includes the cute little picture included at the top of this post.  Evidently, some people didn't find the picture or the webpage very cute. 

In October 2005, Jeanne Caldwell filed a complaint in federal court in California against Roy Caldwell, the Director of the Museum of Paleontology, David Lindberg, Chair of the Integrative Biology Department at UC Berkeley, and Michael Piburn, Program Director for the National Science Foundation (NSF funded some of the work).  Ms. Caldwell claimed that the page at issue impermissibly endorses, advances and proselytizes certain religious beliefs.  Caldwell argued that UC Berkelely's government-funded website contradicts a religious belief that evolution and religion are incompatible and amounts to a state position on religious doctrine, thus violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

In March 2006, the district court dismissed Caldwell's claims, holding that she failed to establish taxpayer standing and her allegations constituted no more than the generalized grievances of one who observes government conduct with which she disagrees. Accordingly, the court dismissed the complaint on the ground that Caldwell had not shown injury in fact.

On October 3, 2008, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal, but now Ms. Caldwell is back in the news because she has asked the United States Supreme Court to hear her case. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Caldwell argues in her petition for certiorari that allowing the lower-court rulings to stand, "would make government Web sites an Establishment Clause free zone."

Speaking of Establishment Clause free zones, I guess the irony of forcing schools to teach creationism, err...I mean intelligent design, is lost on Ms. Caldwell.

(For more on the case, see our legal threats database entry, Caldwell v. Caldwell.)


Subject Area: