The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)

Freedom of Religion

How did the Rehnquist Court rule on the issue of teaching evolution in public schools?

The Rehnquist Court issued only one opinion on the divisive issue of the evolution-creationism debate. In Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), the Court struck down a Louisiana law that required public school teachers to give “balanced time” to the teaching of evolution and creationism. Under Louisiana’s “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction” Act, if a science curriculum included evolution, creationism theory would have to receive nearly equal time. A teacher could not teach just evolution. The state argued that the purpose of the law was to enhance academic freedom. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed 7–2, writing that the “preeminent purpose of the Louisiana Legislature was clearly to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind.”

The latest dispute in the evolution-creationism debate is the teaching of intelligent design—the theory that life’s origins point to a designer or creator. Intelligent design is a modern-day version of creationism. The teaching of intelligent design led to a lawsuit in federal court, which led to a federal trial judge striking down an intelligent design program in a school district in Dover, Pennsylvania. The U.S. Supreme Court has not had the opportunity to weigh in on the issue of intelligent design.


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