Thursday, January 13, 2005

Cobb County Stickers Ruled Unconstitutional

The judge has now ruled in the Cobb County “sticker” trial. A pdf of the full decision can be found here.

At issue in the trial was the constitutionality of placing the following sticker in the all public school biology textbooks:


This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, sfudied carefully, and critically considered.


The judge has found that the stickers are unconstitutional and must be removed. He based his decision on the three-pronged test established by the Supreme Court in the case Lemov v. Kurtzman:


Under the Lemon test, a government-sponsored message violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment if: (1) it does not have a secular purpose, (2) its principal or primary effect advances or inhibits religion, or (3) it creates an excessive entanglement of the government with religion.


The judge found that the stickers passed the first prong, finding that there was a plausible secular purpose for the labels. But the stickers failed the remaining two prongs, and were therefore unconstitutional.

According to the decision, to pass the first prong it is only required that some secular purpose be found for the message. It does not have to be the primary purpose, or the one that motivated the people crafting the message. With that in mind, the decision states:


Based on the evidence before this Court at the summary judgment stage, the Court ruled that the School Board did not act with the purpose of promoting or advancing religion in placing the Sticker in the science textbooks. To the contrary, the Court found that the School Board sought to advance two secular purposes. First, the School Board sought to encourage students to engage in critical thinking as it relates to theories of origin. Second, given the movement in Cobb County to strengthen teaching on evolution and to make it a mandatory part of the curriculum, the School Board adopted the Sucker to reduce offense to those students and parents whose personal beliefs might conflict with teaching on evolution. The Court was satisfied on summary judgment that these two purposes were secular and not a sham.


Sadly, the wheels come off when the remaining prongs are considered:


In this case, the Court believes that an informed, reasonable observer would interpret the Sticker to convey a message of endorsement of religion. That is, the Sticker sends a message to those who oppose evolution for religious reasons that they are favored members of the political community, while the Sticker sends a message to those who believe in evolution that they are political outsiders. This is
particularly so in a case such as this one involving impressionable public school
students who are likely to view the message on the Sticker as a union of church and
state. Given that courts should be “particularly vigilant in monitoring compliance with the Establishment Clause in elementary and secondary schools,” Edwards 482 US. at 583-$4, the Court is of the opinion that the Sucker must be declared unconstitutional See also Smith, 827 F .2d at 690 {stating that courts must use “'particular care” when “'many of the citizens perceiving the governmental message are children in then formative years”'} (citation omitted)


Later, the judge writes


While the School Board may have considered the request of its constituents and adopted the Sticker for sincere, secular purposes, an informed, reasonable observer would understand the School Board to be endorsing the viewpoint of Christian fundamentalists and creationists that evolution is a problematic theory lacking an adequate foundation.


For me, this really gets at the heart of the matter. With sufficient imagination you can contrive a secular purpose for these stickers to promote. But the fact is that everyone knows the point of the stickers was to incline students towards rejecting evolution and accepting evolution. Elsewhere in the decision the judge provides evidence that the sitckers were having precisely that effect.

The judge concluded the decision with the additional finding that the stickers violated the Georgia state constitution:


In the instant case, it is undisputed that the Cobb County School Board used the money of taxpayers to produce and place the Sticker in dispute in certain of the Cobb County School District science textbooks This Sticker aids the beliefs of Christran fundamentalists and creationists. In light of the prior interpretation of the Georgia Constitution provision challenged by the Plaintiffs and given the Court's
conclusion above that the Sticker violates the Establishment Clause of the First
Amendment, the Court likewise concludes that the Sticker runs afoul of the Georgia
Constitution.


The decision is forty-four pages long, and goes into tremendous detail about the legal reasoning that went into each part of the decision. Indeed, what impresses me about it, and what usually impresses me about legal decisions, is how clearly they are written, and the sheer wealth of prior case law that is used to back it up.

I mention this because you can be sure the right-wingers will completely ignore the actual legal reasoning that went into the decision, and instead pound their usual drum about activist judges and strict constructivism and the like. To a conservative, judicial activism is when the Court rules in a way it doesn't like. If any of the cable chat shows do a segment on this decision, you can be sure the discussion will be framed in that way. They'ss get a Pat Robertson or a Jerry Falwell to talk about judicial tyranny and the ongoing war of liberals against God. The on ething they absolutely will not talk about is the substance of the decision.

6 Comments:

At 12:44 AM, Blogger coturnix said...

I am assuming this is a typo:
"...to incline students towards rejecting evolution and accepting evolution."

Your fingers don't like typing "crationism", I guess ;-)

 
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At 10:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't the Judges decision unconstitutional, since he favors the evolutionary religion, treating it like it could not be questioned? If it is unquestionable, this case would be pointless! Plus, as a government worker, he is entangling the system in the "Beginning God vs Beginning Dirt" argument.

 
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