Do you have a right to your beliefs? It’s a question that sounds strange, almost heretical to us Americans, but in his 1874 essay “The Ethics of Belief,” Cambridge philosopher and mathematician William K. Clifford argued that personal beliefs are only legitimate if acquired honestly through patient investigation. This is a radical notion: the idea that a belief, especially one that might affect other people, must withstand the encounter with reality in order to be considered ethical. Such radicalism has emerged into our public discourse only a few times in our history. One of those was Arkansas in 1982, with U.S. District Judge William Overton’s ruling in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education.
The McLean v. Arkansas case centered upon the constitutionality of Act 590, a law that mandated equal time for so-called “creation science” in public school classrooms where the theory of evolution was taught. Although the people of Arkansas had, back in 1928, outlawed the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools through an initiated act (a law overturned in the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case Epperson v. Arkansas), the driving force behind what became Act 590 was from out of state. Wendell Bird of the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego, had drawn up a model bill for teaching creationism alongside evolutionary theory, and this model was picked up by respiratory therapist Paul Ellwanger of South Carolina, founder of the organization Citizens for Fairness in Education. He tinkered with Bird’s original work and sent it to state legislators across the country hoping to get a bite, thus making Act 590 a clear example of what we call today “cookie-cutter legislation.”
Multiple Arkansas legislators received copies of Ellwanger’s model bill and passed on it. But not James L. Holsted, a state senator from North Little Rock and a “born again” Christian. He introduced the legislation, Senate Bill 482, without ever once consulting with the Arkansas Department of Education or any educators or scientists, and the bill passed the Senate on March 13, 1981, without going through a committee for hearings and with only a few minutes of discussion on the Senate floor. The House of Representatives conducted only a 15-minute hearing before passing the bill 69-18.
At this point, alarm bells were sounding among the more liberal denizens of the state with the awareness that Arkansas was about to perform another act of self-inflicted harm.
The bill now went to Frank White, whose bid the previous year to be only the second Republican Party governor since the death of Reconstruction was initially regarded as a long shot at best. But this obscure Little Rock banker hammered first-term wonderkid Bill Clinton relentlessly over “Cubans and car tags” — that is, the discord at Fort Chaffee due to an influx of Cuban refugees and Clinton’s increase of automobile licensing fees. After eking out a 32,000-vote margin of victory, White proclaimed his win “a victory for the Lord,” and so perhaps it was not at all surprising that the new governor signed the creation-science bill into law on March 19, making it Act 590 of 1981. Nor was it surprising that he later admitted not having read the bill before signing it. White had not really expected to become governor and entered office without the sort of legislative program that might guide the bills coming to his desk. This bill no doubt spoke to his own religious sentiments. After signing it, the governor extravagantly exclaimed to assembled reporters that Arkansas had assumed the scientific leadership of the known world.
From this point onward, Arkansas Gazette cartoonist George Fisher would depict White holding a half-eaten banana in one hand. Some things just stick like that — you enter office without a legislative plan and end up being forever defined by a bill you didn’t even read.
Suddenly, national media attention was focused upon Arkansas, with the inevitable lawsuit fostering predictions of a sequel to the famous Scopes Monkey Trial. In response, some state legislators pleaded ignorance about the bill they had just passed. Sen. Holsted himself acknowledged knowing very little about the subject of his bill, saying that if he had foreseen so many people asking him about creationism, “I might have gotten scared off because I don’t know anything about that stuff.” But he stuck to his guns, unlike others who had turned around to denounce Act 590 as unconstitutional. Sure, they had voted for it, but they had not expected it to actually pass — they just wanted to make sure they were on the right side of religious issues when the next election rolled around. As Matthew McNair noted in his essay in the 2016 UA Press anthology “First Amendment Studies in Arkansas,” “This casts dubious light on the assertion by some that [Act 590] was purely a bill to promote science education.”
Some legislators floated the idea of a special session in order to revoke the law, but White pledged to veto any such bill. When the ACLU and others filed suit, Act 590 became the new cause celebre for the Moral Majority. Arkansas had stumbled right into a new monkey trial with national attention fixated upon the goings-on in Little Rock.
The trial opened Dec. 7, 1981, and concluded 10 days later. Among the plaintiffs were a number of clergy representing Methodist, Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Jewish and other groups whose inclusion was designed to counter the Moral Majority framing of the debate as one of atheism vs. Christianity (the name of the court case takes itself from a United Methodist minister, Rev. William McLean). Other plaintiffs included biology teachers and organizations like the Arkansas Education Association. The ACLU took a two-pronged approach, with a “religious team” of witnesses arguing that creationism was an explicitly religious doctrine, and a “scientific team” whose job was to undercut the supposed scientific claims of creationism.
The state had the more difficult job, and not just because it was forced to defend a law that had undergone no debate and that few of those who voted for it even understood it. Attorney General Steve Clark was seen as, at best, a reluctant defender of Act 590, and a number of state and national groups attempted to sign on as institutional defendants, citing a statement of Clark’s that he had “personal qualms” about the constitutionality of the act as a sign that he would not represent the case for creationism with full fervor. However, Judge Overton refused to allow any outside intervention. A Sept. 2, 1981, Gazette cartoon by George Fisher, titled “The Intervenors,” depicts Clark wearing old-fashioned riding gear and driving the sort of car that carried the Clampetts to California in “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The car is labeled, “Creation Science Case,” and in the voluminous back seat is a rowdy assemblage of men (along with one woman and a monkey), one at a pulpit, one throwing leaflets into the wind, and one, with a steering wheel of his own, shouting, “Judge Overton or no Judge Overton — I just don’t trust that driver!”
Then, it came to light in December 1981, in the very midst of the trial, that Clark had allowed the ACLU to auction off a dinner with him as part of a fundraising campaign. This raised the ire of the Moral Majority. On “The 700 Club,” Pat Robertson described Clark as “crooked,” while Jerry Falwell accused him of “collusion or worse.” Adherents of creationism felt that the fix was in.
From the moment Act 590 was passed up through the trial later that year, many supporters of creationism equated their advocacy with democracy itself. Holsted, who introduced the bill, said, “My job as a politician and as a senator from North Little Rock is to introduce something that represents my beliefs and the beliefs of the majority of my constituents, which I am convinced that bill does.” According to Dorothy Nelkin, a sociologist of science who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs in the McLean trial, many state witnesses accused “evolutionary biologists of ‘censorship,’ of ‘country club exclusion,’ of keeping those theories which were incompatible with their personal or philosophical views ‘out of the marketplace of ideas.’ ”
White liked to brag that the mail he received was 5-to-1 in favor of Act 590. Letters to the Arkansas Gazette regularly echoed the democratic rhetoric of those who promoted the bill, with one being titled, “Can 22 State Senators Be Wrong?” And when a judiciary not subject to democratic limitations dared to sit in judgment upon a popular idea, it evoked a great deal of ire; or as one correspondent to the Gazette wrote: “The majority did not vote these judges or laws, but enemies and subversives have infiltrated the security and legal systems, the courts, the schools, including Communists and the Mafia and evil moral perverts in every form of disguise and deception.” Even Attorney General Clark could not help implying that popular acclaim somehow legitimized the law, saying of the religious leaders testifying against Act 590: “I don’t think they represent the cross-section of Christians in our state.”
So, while creationists like to accuse scientists of constituting a “country club” set with an undemocratic hold upon education, is creationism democratic? No. As one of the founders of modern young-earth creationism, Henry M. Morris, whose work was cited in the McLean ruling, wrote in an early textbook of his: “… it is … quite impossible to determine anything about Creation through a study of present processes, because present processes are not creative in character. If man wishes to know anything about Creation (the time of Creation, the duration of Creation, the order of Creation, the methods of Creation, or anything else) his sole source of true information is that of divine revelation.” Likewise, Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research, and a prominent witness for the defense, once wrote, “God used processes which are not now operating anywhere in the natural universe. This is why we refer to divine creation as special creation. We cannot discover by scientific investigation anything about the creative processes used by God.” Harold Coffin, a creationist writer and witness for the defense, acknowledged in a deposition that scientific inquiry would lead to the conclusion that the earth was billions of years old but that his view “is not so much based on scientific evidence as on Scriptural-historical information” — or counting backward through the generations listed in the Bible to determine when God created the world.
The scientific method, on the other hand, is fundamentally democratic. Anyone can, for example, test the rate of acceleration due to gravity on Earth, regardless of the experimenter’s nationality, age, race, religion or gender, and come up with the same answer. Renowned astronomer Carl Sagan once wrote: “The whole idea of a democratic application of skepticism is that everyone should have the essential tools to effectively and constructively evaluate claims to knowledge.” However, according to creationists, the only people who have access to the truth are those who not only believe in a God, but believe in the right kind of God the right kind of way, and the only way to evaluate claims of knowledge is via one of these self-appointed emissaries of God.
It surprised no one when Overton ruled, on Jan. 5, 1982, that Act 590 was unconstitutional. As expected, he based a large part of his ruling on the establishment clause of the First Amendment, finding that creationism was a religious doctrine that could not be supported by the state, and that no amount of public support justified its inclusion in educational curricula: “The application and content of First Amendment principles are not determined by public opinion polls or by a majority vote. Whether the proponents of Act 590 constitute the majority or the minority is quite irrelevant under a constitutional system of government. No group, no matter how large or small, may use the organs of government, of which the public schools are the most conspicuous and influential, to foist its religious beliefs on others.”
But Judge Overton also took the time to expound upon the nature of science and thus illustrate just how far creationism was removed from actual scientific method. Namely, he listed five essential characteristics of science: (1) It is guided by natural law; (2) It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law; (3) It is testable against the empirical world; (4) Its conclusions are tentative, i.e., are not necessarily the final word; and (5) It is falsifiable.
In other words, science is the pursuit of understanding reality, and in that, science is not so different from other pursuits of ours. Harvard University biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who testified in the McLean trial, recounted later how, when he returned to his hotel room in preparation to leave Little Rock, he encountered a plumber looking for the source of a water leak that had caused the ceiling in the room below to collapse. Said plumber gave the biologist “a fascinating disquisition on how a professional traces the pathways of water through hotel pipes and walls” that “was perfectly logical and mechanistic.” However, when Gould asked the plumber his opinion on the trial across the street, “he confessed his staunch creationism, including his firm belief in the miracle of Noah’s flood.” Apparently, the plumber did not recognize the fact that the principles underlying his own work — tracing effects back to causes — also served as the foundation of evolutionary biology.
In the Book of Genesis, there is the story of Joseph, whose jealous half-brothers conspire to sell him into slavery. He undergoes a series of adventures and ends up right-hand-man to the pharaoh of Egypt. Many years later, a famine sends Joseph’s half-brothers to Egypt to seek food, and Joseph finds that he is in the perfect position to help his family. As he tells them of their original crime, “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.”
In like manner, those who foisted Act 590 upon Arkansas intended evil for its citizens; they intended to inaugurate a reign of ignorance that would leave the state crippled and its citizenry without the tools to understand reality. But the result of their efforts was, in Judge Overton’s eloquent ruling, a full-throated defense of the scientific method, one that would remain unparalleled in jurisprudence until the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover case out of Pennsylvania that similarly destroyed the intellectual pretensions of intelligent design (and, like the McLean ruling, was never appealed to the Supreme Court). Many who lived through the trial remember McLean as a blight upon Arkansas, an embarrassment for a state that perennially lingered at the bottom of any national ranking (save for, maybe, rice production and teen pregnancy). But we should remember, instead, the rousing vindication of rationality and democracy that emerged from this time of trial. For although the creationists meant it for evil, Act 590 — in the hands of the plaintiffs and Judge Overton — was turned into an opportunity for good.