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Segraves vs. State of California

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The Segraves vs. State of California case involved three children of Kelly L. Segraves, a director and co-founder of the San Diego-based Creation-Science Research Center. On his children’s behalf, Kelly Segraves contended that the free exercise of their religion was hindered when evolution was taught as fact in their school class. The Creation-Science Research Center sponsored the lawsuit against the State Board of Education and others, and the case came before the Superior Court of California in Sacramento in 1981.

The judge, in summation, said that "this has been a most interesting and unusual case." [1] This was not only because of the nature of the case, but also because of the excellent and non-disruptive ABC television coverage, and the gentle and sincere attempt on both sides to resolve the matter. In the end, the court ruled that the State’s science framework "does provide sufficient accommodation for the views of the Plaintiff" [Segraves]. But the court found that the Board of Education’s "anti-dogmatism" policy was not well known or understood, and ordered the board to make this policy known to all publishers and schools who receive or have received the science framework. The court said that both sides won in the case, and ordered each to pay its own costs.

The case

In the Superior Court of the State of California in and for the county of Sacramento
Kasey Segraves, Jason Segraves and Kevin Segraves, minors under 14 years of age, by their Guardian ad Litem, Kelly Segraves, William Dannemeyer, Michael D. Antonovich, Eugene N. Ragle and Creation-Science Research Center,
Plaintiffs,
vs.
State of California, Board of Education of the State of California, Department of Education of the State of California, Department of General Services, Wilson Riles, Kenneth Cory, Jessie Unruth and Does I through 50, inclusive,
Defendants.
No. 278978 Dept. 14

Background

Kelly Segraves was concerned that California’s Board of Education was teaching his three children—Kasey, Jason, and Kevin—that evolution was a fact. As the Segraves family did not believe that evolution was a fact, Segraves argued that the State was saying their creationist beliefs were wrong, and this infringed on their religious freedom. The State Board of Education told the court that it had implemented an "anti-dogmatism" policy in 1972. It said this policy was still in place, and it specifically prevented such infringements from occurring.

This case was unusual in that the court did not ask for written briefs or engage in its own legal research, or produce a lengthy written opinion. But the judge, in his summation, said he had discussed this with counsel. He had decided they all knew as much about the case as necessary, so he would "forgo that written dissertation and render the decision now." [2]

Court’s opinion

This case did not have the venom and hostility that often occurs over deeply held beliefs. Before delivering his judgment, the judge praised everyone involved in the case. He said counsel for each side had been courteous, "gentlemanly," intelligent, and thoughtful in the presentation of "a most difficult kind of matter." The high quality of the teachers who gave testimony impressed him, as did the youngest Segraves boy who sat politely through what must have seemed a long and dull case. The judge noted that this case involved religious liberty—one of the country’s most cherished freedoms—and it touched on the sensibilities of a child. He felt it was "wonderful that in our country we can seek to invoke the awesome authority of the courts to assuage the feelings of a child."

The court considered the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, which dictates, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." It said the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates this, and it applies to the states, so the guarantee also applies to state action. The judge noted there was no suggestion that public schools should stop teaching evolution. Nor had the plaintiffs argued that public schools should teach special creation. The issue of the case was whether "the free exercise of religion by Mr. Segraves and his children was thwarted by the instruction in science that the children had received in school, and if so, has there been sufficient accommodation for their views?"

The findings

A comment from one of the teachers (Miss Alexander) impressed the judge. She said a child who is a Jehovah’s Witness should not feel guilty because he cannot salute the flag. A Seventh-day Adventist should not feel guilty for not taking part in a car wash on the Sabbath. A Jewish child should not feel bad for being unable to join in Easter or Christmas celebrations. Education policies must therefore consider students’ beliefs.

The court found that the State Board of Education, as well as the plaintiffs, had acted in good faith. It also found that the State science framework, qualified by its anti-dogmatism policy, provided "sufficient accommodation for the views of the plaintiff." The problem, though, was that the board had not clearly communicated its policy to classroom teachers. To correct this, the court ordered the board to distribute its policy to all publishers, institutions, school districts, schools, and anyone who has received, or will receive, the science framework.

The Creation-Science Research Center, which sponsored the lawsuit, summarized the case this way:

"In 1981 the Center sponsored a lawsuit, Segraves vs. the California State Board of Education, which was tried in the Sacramento Superior Court. A landmark trial judgment and a court order were achieved which forbid the State from teaching evolution dogmatically as fact. The task of forcing the State fully to obey the court order continues." [3]

Analysis

Although the judge did not describe the "anti-dogmatism policy" in the summation (or provide any meaningful legal analysis at all), several online secondary sources indicate that it was twofold[4]:

  • Discussions about origins were to emphasize that scientific explanations are more about "how" rather than "ultimate causes;"
  • Speculative statements about origins, whether in texts or in class discussion, were to be presented as conditional and not dogmatic.

Criticisms of the policy:

  • There is no evidence that the policy has ever been implemented. The judge did not even require implementation in the ruling. Only "dissemination" was required.
  • The policy is so broad as to be meaningless. It begs the question: "If speculative statements about origins are to be presentated non-dogmatically, which statements qualify as speculative? Is it speculative to say that life arose via abiogenesis? That humans and apes are related?" That depends who you ask. Creationists think they are speculative; evolutionists think they are fact. Dogmatists never think their beliefs are speculative. That's what makes them dogmatists. A meaningful policy would identify which statements are speculative, so that the policy could be meaningfully implemented.
  • The difference between "how" and "ultimate causes" mentioned in the policy is also so vague as to be meaningless. What is the difference between "how" and "ultimate cause?" Where do the speculations of the general theory of evolution fall?

Related references

See also