Origins Instruction


One of the more controversial issues in public schools continues to be over which theories should be taught about the earth’s origin. The theory of evolution has been taught almost exclusively in schools since the Supreme Court first protected it in 1968.

However, many school board policies have become friendlier toward teaching the challenges to and weaknesses of evolutionary theory. There is still strong opposition against actually teaching alternative theories in public school classrooms, such as intelligent design, but many policies do not prohibit discussing them.

Issue Analysis

Origins Theories

There are three main theories in the origin-of-life debate: evolution, intelligent design, and creation science.

Darwinian Evolution: Darwinian evolution is “a theory of the origin and perpetuation of new species of animals and plants, that offspring of a given organism vary, that natural selection favors the survival of some of these variations over others, that new species have arisen and may continue to arise by these processes, and that widely divergent groups of plants and animals have arisen from the same ancestor.”[1] Darwinian evolution is atheistic, as it asserts that life arose and evolved by unguided and random forces: thus, evolution is a philosophy of materialism, which presupposes that natural and physical laws can explain all phenomena, completely dismissing the possibility of supernatural involvement.

Intelligent Design: Intelligent design is “the theory that certain features of the physical universe and/or biological systems can be best explained by reference to an intelligent cause (that is, the conscious action of an intelligent agent), rather than an undirected natural process or a material mechanism.”[2] Intelligent design draws on the natural world for explanations for the formation of life, not necessarily on the biblical account. Hence, it does not specify any particular designer as the intelligence behind the design that is observed in nature through science.

Creation Science: Creation science is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “the effort to provide scientific evidence supporting the account of the creation of the universe related in the Bible.”[3] It does make a claim as to the source of the design found in nature – the God of the Bible. Creation science bases its claims on the biblical account found in Genesis.

Current Status

In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a law forbidding teachers from teaching evolution in public schools.[4] The Court said, “There is and can be no doubt that the First Amendment does not permit the State to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma.”[5] Basically, the Court said there was no secular reason for prohibiting evolution from being taught.

In 1987, the Court struck down a law that required teachers to present both evolution and creation.[6] Again, the Court said that the law was an attempt to promote religion and served no secular purpose.

Technically, these cases were about state laws requiring teachers to teach creation, rather than prohibiting teaching of creation, but the Supreme Court case law is clear that public schools (including teachers who are considered to be acting on behalf of the school) may not promote religion. This is based on the Court’s interpretation of the federal Constitution.

More recent efforts to get around these cases through requiring teaching of intelligent design alongside Darwinian evolution have failed. One widely-publicized example involved the Dover Area School Board in Dover, Pennsylvania. The Board required ninth grade biology teachers to read a statement regarding evolution to their classes. The statement says, “Because Darwin’s theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence.” It goes on to say that, “… intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.” In 2005, a federal judge ruled that merely notifying students about intelligent design theory is an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause.[7]

In late 2013, Texas caused a stir when members of their textbook review panel urged that public school science books include science standards that call for students to “analyze and evaluate” the basic principles of evolution.[8] This overreaction was led by organizations like Americans United for Separation of Church and State who saw this as an attempt to replace evolution with creationism.

Arizona Science Standards

Arizona’s Department of Education has adopted Science Standards for grades K-12.[9] The Life Science standard requires that, by high school, students, “Analyze how patterns in the fossil record, nuclear chemistry, geology, molecular biology, and geographical distribution give support to the theory of organic evolution through natural selection over billions of years and the resulting present day biodiversity.”[10]

The Science Standards, however, do allow for some critical thinking and evaluation of scientific theories, which allows Arizona public school teachers to present information on the controversy surrounding evolution and some of its scientific weaknesses. The History and Nature of Science standard for grades 6-8, for example, has a performance objective of recognizing that “scientific knowledge is subject to change as new information and/or technology challenges prevailing theories.”[11] Using molecular biology’s discovery of irreducibly complex cell structures, which cannot be explained by evolution but can be explained by intelligent design, is an example of how scientists debate the merits of controversial theories.

The standards for high school call for students to be able to “describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of theories,” and to “explain the process by which accepted ideas are challenged or extended by scientific innovation.”[12] Both objectives would be well served by an objective presentation of the current debate over origins.

The Science Standards do not require teachers to present alternative theories to evolution but do allow them to at least discuss some of evolution’s shortcomings and acknowledge that the theory is controversial. This standard could give teachers the opportunity to discuss alternative theories to evolution.

Arizona parents have the right to look at the learning materials and curriculum used in science courses to see if objectionable material will be taught to their children.[13]

Arizona, along with forty-five other states, has opted to participate in the new nationwide “Common Core” standards for math and English. The process of implementing the Common Core standards will take several years, and although they do not specifically address science, the state may update all standards as part of this initiative. Parents and citizens need to stay attuned to these changes and their impact on what is taught in local schools.

Resource for Teachers

For more information on the idea of “teaching the controversy,” visit the Discovery Institute website ( The Discovery Institute is a group of scientists who are working on providing rigorous, peer-reviewed research to support the theory of intelligent design. They have a briefing packet specifically for teachers (

Talking Points

  • Arizona students are allowed to hold to their beliefs on origins instruction without fear of retribution or penalty from school officials. Under the state’s academic standards, students are allowed to voice their opinion in classroom discussion with materials presented.


Origins instruction is one of the most controversial subjects in our schools today. Yet thanks to CAP-supported bills like the Students’ Religious Liberty Act, students are free to express their thoughts on the issue and hold to their beliefs.

© January 2014 Center for Arizona Policy, Inc. All rights reserved.
This publication includes summaries of many complex areas of law and is not specific legal advice to any person. Consult an attorney if you have questions about your specific situation or believe your legal rights have been infringed. This publication is educational in nature and should not be construed as an effort to aid or hinder any legislation.

[1] Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary (2007), available at

[2] Paul M. Weyrich, Intelligent Design – A Scientific, Academic and Philosophical Controversy, Am. Daily (Dec. 6, 2005), available at (quoting Stephen C. Meyer and John Angus Campbell, eds., Darwinism, Design, and Public Education (2003)).

[3]The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, 3d Ed. (2005), available at

[4] Epperson v. State of Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968).

[5] Id.

[6] Edwards v. Aguillard. 482 U.S. 578 (1987).

[7] Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 400 F.Supp.2d 707 (D. Penn. 2005).

[8] Motoko Rich, Creationists on Texas Panel for Biology Textbooks, New York Times, Sept. 28, 2013, available at

[9] Arizona Department of Education, The Science Standard Articulated by Grade Level – by Strand (2005), (last visited Dec. 5, 2011).

[10] Science Standard Articulated by Grade Level: High School (2005), (last visited Dec. 5, 2011).

[11] Arizona Department of Education, Strand 2: History and Nature of Science (2005), (last visited Dec. 5, 2011).

[12] Id.

[13] Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 15-102.