Is PBS Telling Teachers to Violate the First Amendment?

Airing on PBS tonight at 8 p.m. is “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial”, a two hour documentary that tells the story of the Dover case. The ACLU are super-excited!

Of all of the cases the ACLU has taken on in the last few years, our challenge to the promotion of “intelligent design” in Dover, Pennsylvania’s public schools is one that truly speaks volumes about our work - work that ACLU supporters like you make possible.

That is why I wanted to let you know about an upcoming program highlighting this landmark case.

Here is a preview:

I won’t know how objective the documetary itself is until I watch it, however a recent move by PBS has one group up in arms:

A packet for educators issued by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in conjunction with the NOVA program “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial” encourages teaching practices that are probably unconstitutional, a conservative organization stated on Tuesday.

“The NOVA/PBS teaching guide encourages the injection of religion into classroom teaching about evolution in a way that likely would violate current Supreme Court precedents about the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause,” said John West, vice president for public policy and legal affairs at the Discovery Institute, in a news release.

The 22-page document is a companion piece to the two-hour NOVA docudrama, “Judgment Day,” airing on most network affiliates Tuesday night. The film is about a trial concerning intelligent design that took place in Dover, Pa., in 2005.

The guide claims to provide teachers with “easily digestible information to guide and support you in facing challenges to evolution.”

In the booklet, teachers are instructed to use such discussion questions as: “Can you accept evolution and still believe in religion?” The answer to that query is provided as: “Yes. The common view that evolution is inherently antireligious is simply false.”

So, does this blanket answer cover all religions? It doesn’t seem to be a very neutral answer to different religions to me. Does it violate current interpretation of the Establishment Clause?

Government in our democracy, state and national, must be neutral in matters of religious theory, doctrine, and practice. It may not be hostile to any religion or to the advocacy of no-religion; and it may not aid, foster, or promote one religion or religious theory against another or even against the militant opposite. The First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.

The Discovery Institute thinks so:

“This statement is simplistic and not neutral among different religions, and in that sense arguably inconsistent with Supreme Court teachings concerning neutrality,” said attorney Casey Luskin, program officer for public policy and legal affairs at the institute.

“The Supreme Court ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas that the government must maintain ‘neutrality between religion and religion,’” said Randal Wenger, a Pennsylvania attorney who filed amicus briefs in the Kitzmiller v. Dover School District case.

“Because the briefing packet only promotes religious viewpoints that are friendly towards evolution, this is not neutral, and PBS is encouraging teachers to violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause,” Wenger added.

In its news release, the Discovery Institute indicates that it has enlisted more than a dozen attorneys and legal scholars, including Wenger, to review the PBS teaching guide with an eye to its constitutionality.

“The PBS materials, in suggesting that students need not be concerned that evolution violates their religion, ironically equip public school teachers to violate our current conception of the First Amendment by explicitly teaching students concerning matters of religious belief,” Wenger said.

So, is PBS encouraging teachers to violate the First Amendment? I'm not a lawyer or constitutional scholar, so I don’t know. However, the Discovery Institute has a convincing argument in my opinion. Interesting to say the least.

Anti-Religious Bias PBS