By Melissa Story, July 2, 2013
If you enjoy studying how religion intersects public life, then you’ve no doubt encountered the sensational headlines from the United States concerning ongoing legal battles over the teaching of creationist theories versus evolutionary theories in public school science classrooms. Now, many Canadians may think that we’re immune to this kind of controversy, but Canadian controversies tend to be more localized. This means that when controversy brews, it doesn’t always make national headlines. While creationist activity may not be as sensational as that which is seen south of the border, make no mistake – we’ve had our share of “Teach the Controversy” battles. As part of my Honours work in Religion, I decided to investigate what, if any, creationist controversies have occurred in Canada. Over the following days, I intend to take you on a historical journey of creationism in Canada. Much of what you will read is adapted from a paper I submitted towards my degree, and since that paper is rather long, I’ve decided to break it into smaller parts. Before I begin, let me be clear that I support religious freedom. I have no issue with teaching creationist theories; however, I do firmly believe that creationist theories should not be taught in science classrooms. That said, I welcome your feedback (no matter which side of the controversy you support), but please keep it respectful. Let’s dive right in, shall we?
Creationism in the United States: A Brief Overview
During the 1920s a small Tennessee town, Dayton, was on the cusp of financial ruin. Local leaders and businessmen concocted a clever plan to inject some much need cash flow into the town coffers. A recently passed state law had made it illegal for educators to teach the theory of evolution. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had advertised their intent to challenge the law by seeking out a teacher willing to be arrested for violating this new statute. Enlisting local high school teacher, John Scopes, a group of Dayton businessmen contacted the ACLU to express interest in assisting in their legal challenge. It was hoped that the presumed media spectacle might bring some fortune to their small town (Larson, 1997). Beginning as an earnest attempt by civil servants to save their struggling town, the Scopes Trial became one of the most sensational and discussed trials in American history.
Scopes was found guilty and fined one hundred dollars for illegally teaching the theory of evolution – violating Tennessee’s anti-evolution statute (“America’s Difficulty”, 2009; Armenta & Lane, 2010). It would be another four decades before these laws were repealed; however, the trial set in motion an ongoing debate about teaching evolutionary theories alongside Biblically-inspired creation accounts in science classrooms. Since the Scopes Trial, there have been ongoing challenges in the United States regarding the validity of Darwin’s theory, but also the constitutionality of children being required to learn a theory that counters their religious beliefs.
The early years of legal challenges focused on the constitutionality of imposing religious views in public schools versus the autonomy of parents to provide an education to their children that was compatible with their own worldviews. The inclusion of creationism in the curriculum was seen by some as a violation of the separation of church and state. Others argued that by not providing equal time to creationist theories, religious students were being taught in an environment that was seemingly hostile to their religious beliefs. Time and time again, higher courts ruled that creationism could not be taught alongside evolution because creationism was dogmatic in nature and essentially brought religion into the public school system (Armenta & Lane, 2010).
More recent legal challenges have shifted to focus on alternative ‘scientific’ theories rather than divinely-inspired ones. Intelligent design (ID) has emerged from the ashes of earlier creationism challenges. Proponents claim that ID is a valid alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution and have lobbied to have it included in science curricula. To date, several higher courts have ruled that ID is nothing more than creationism in the guise of science (Armenta & Lane, 2010; Moore, Jensen, & Hatch, 2003). A 2005 verdict stemming from a case that saw a group of parents challenge Pennsylvania’s Dover Area School District’s recently amended curriculum requiring ID be taught alongside evolution, suggested that ID was essentially a secularized version of creationism (Cameron, 2006). The judge in the case sided with the parent’s group in an effort to uphold the Constitution’s separation of church and state.
Clearly, the American judicial system has repeatedly turned to the Constitution in this matter. Due to the strict separation of church and state within the United States’ civic doctrine, it seems reasonable and feasible for this to be accomplished. Canada, however, does not have such finite divisions between church and state entrenched in its laws (Noll, 1992). While the Charter of Rights does provide protections to citizens, it does not explicitly outline divisions between faith and politics. Despite this, Canadian politics do not seem to be overtly intertwined with religion. On the surface, Canadians seem less preoccupied or concerned about religious influences on government or public institutions. This has meant that any religious controversies, similar to those in the United States, have remained largely unnoticed. This lack of public scrutiny has enabled religiously motivated policies to penetrate various public institutions without the similar fanfare that has greeted such policies in the United States.
Creationism in Canada’s Public Schools
Profile: Abbotsford, BC
Abbotsford, British Columbia is a city located about 60 kilometers outside of Vancouver, and is the site for Canada’s most controversial creationism case. A profile of this community depicts it as a deeply religious one in the heart of British Columbia’s Bible belt. It is neighbour to Trinity Western University (a private conservative Christian institution), as well as a number of evangelical churches, Bible colleges, and private religious schools (Barker, 2004; Wood, 1995). During the time of this controversy, Abbotsford’s population consisted of a large Mennonite community, many Western European immigrants, and the highest number of Christian conservatives in the province (Barker, 2004).
Historically, Abbotsford has been involved in numerous religious controversies. In 1977, 300 students walked out of a local high school to protest the principal’s instatement of compulsory daily prayer and scripture readings. A few years later in 1980, the Abbotsford School Board defied a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that struck down mandatory daily prayer in public schools. In 1995, the library board was accused of attempting to ban a newspaper whose target demographic was the homosexual community (Barker, 2004). More recently, the school board has been embroiled in controversies surrounding the refusal to allow a Social Justice course to be taught at high schools due to concerns from the religious community over its content which included issues such as homophobia (“Gay-friendly course halted,” 2008). Late last year, the school district was one of three under review for policies that allowed Gideons International to hand out Bibles to students (Steffenhagen & Baker, 2012). The aforementioned are just some examples of the religious controversies that have taken place in the community. It is little wonder that the community has been recognized as highly religious, or that the inclusion of creation science in public school science curricula remained largely uncontested for over a decade.
In part 2, I’ll explore creationism in Canada throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s (with a special focus on the Abbotsford creationism controversy, itself). Oh, and in case you’re wondering where I retrieved my information, you’ll find a complete reference list below.
America’s difficulty with Darwin. (2009, February). History Today, 59(2), 22-28.
Armenta, T. & Lane, K. E. (2010). Tennessee to Texas: Tracing the evolution controversy in public education. The Clearing House, 83, 76-79. doi:10.1080/00098651003655811
Barker, J. (2004). Creationism in Canada. In S. Coleman & L. Carlin (Eds.), The cultures of creationism (pp. 85-108). Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company.
Cameron, A. (2006). An utterly hopeless muddle. The Presbyterian Record, 130(5), 18-21.
Gay-friendly course halted by Abbotsford school board. (2008, September 21). The Vancouver Sun.
Larson, E. J. (1997). Summer for the gods: The Scopes trial and America’s continuing debate over science and religion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Moore, R., Jensen, M., & Hatch. J. (2003). Twenty questions: What have the courts said about the teaching of evolution and creationism in public schools? BioScience, 53(8), 766-771.
Noll, M. A. (1992). A history of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Steffenhagen, J., & Baker, R. (2012, November 8). Humanist wants Abbotsford School District scrutinized for Bible distribution. Abbotsford Times.
Wood, C. (1995). Big bang versus a big being. Maclean’s, 108(24), 14.