McLean v. Arkansas

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McLean v. Arkansas
CourtUnited States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas
Full case nameMcLean v. Arkansas Board of Education
DecidedJanuary 5, 1982
Citation(s)529 F. Supp. 1255
Transcript(s)McLean v. Ark
The Arkansas Balanced Treatment Act of 1981 requiring schools balance the teaching of evolution with the teaching of creation science violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution
Court membership
Judge(s) sittingWilliam Overton

McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, 529 F. Supp. 1255 (E.D. Ark. 1982), was a 1981 legal case in the US state of Arkansas.[1]

A lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas by various parents, religious groups and organizations, biologists, and others who argued that the Arkansas state law known as the Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act (Act 590), which mandated the teaching of "creation science" in Arkansas public schools, was unconstitutional because it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Judge William Overton handed down a decision on January 5, 1982, giving a clear, specific definition of science as a basis for ruling that creation science is religion and is simply not science.[1] The ruling was not binding on schools outside the Eastern District of Arkansas but had considerable influence on subsequent rulings on the teaching of creationism.[2]

Arkansas did not appeal the decision and it was not until the 1987 case of Edwards v. Aguillard,[3] which dealt with a similar law passed by the State of Louisiana, that teaching "creation science" was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, making that determination applicable nationwide.[4]

Act 590 had been put forward by a Christian fundamentalist on the basis of a request from the Greater Little Rock Evangelical Fellowship for the introduction of legislation based on a "model act" prepared using material from the Institute for Creation Research. It was opposed by many religious organizations and other groups.


The plaintiffs in the suit, who opposed the "balanced treatment" statute, were led by the Reverend William McLean, a United Methodist minister.[5][6]

The other plaintiffs were:

The defendants were the Arkansas Board of Education and its members, in their official capacity, the director of the Department of Education, in his official capacity, and the State Textbooks and Instructional materials Selecting Committee. The Pulaski County Special School District and its directors and superintendent were named in the original complaint but were voluntarily dismissed by plaintiffs at the pre-trial conference on October 1, 1981.


Various state laws prohibiting teaching of evolution had been introduced in the 1920s. They were challenged in 1968 at Epperson v. Arkansas which ruled that "The law's effort was confined to an attempt to blot out a particular theory because of its supposed conflict with the Biblical account, literally read. Plainly, the law is contrary to the mandate of the First, and in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution."[7] The creationist movement turned to promoting teaching creationism in school science classes as equal to evolutionary theory.

Arkansas Act 590[edit]

Arkansas Act 590 of 1981, entitled the "Balanced Treatment for Creation Science and Evolution Science Act," mandated that "creation science" be given equal time in public schools with evolution.

Creation science was defined as follows: "Creation science means the scientific evidences for creation and inferences from those evidences. Creation science includes the scientific evidences and related inferences that indicate:

  1. Sudden creation of the universe, energy and life from nothing;
  2. The insufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about development of all living kinds from a single organism;
  3. Changes only with fixed limits of originally created kinds of plants and animals;
  4. Separate ancestry for man and apes;
  5. Explanation of the Earth's geology by catastrophism, including the occurrence of worldwide flood;
  6. A relatively recent inception of the Earth and living.

Evolution science was defined as follows: "Evolution-science" means the scientific evidences for evolution and inferences from those scientific evidences. Evolution-science includes the scientific evidences and related inferences that indicate:

  1. Emergence by naturalistic processes of the universe from disordered matter and emergence of life from nonlife;
  2. The sufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about development of present living kinds from simple earlier kinds;
  3. Emergency [sic] by mutation and natural selection of present living kinds from simple earlier kinds;
  4. Emergence of man from a common ancestor with apes;
  5. Explanation of the Earth's geology and the evolutionary sequence by uniformitarianism; and
  6. An inception several billion years ago of the Earth and somewhat later of life.

The act was signed into law by Governor Frank D. White on March 19, 1981.

McLean v. Arkansas ruling[edit]

Judge William Overton's ruling handed down on January 5, 1982, concluded that "creation-science" as defined in Arkansas Act 590 "is simply not science". The judgment defined the essential characteristics of science as being:

  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.

Overton found that "creation science" failed to meet these essential characteristics for these reasons:

  1. Sudden creation "from nothing" is not science because it depends upon a supernatural intervention which is not guided by natural law, is not explanatory by reference to natural law, is not testable and is not falsifiable;
  2. "insufficiency of mutation and natural selection" is an incomplete negative generalization;
  3. "changes only within fixed limits of originally created kinds" fails as there is no scientific definition of "kinds", the assertion appears to be an effort to establish outer limits of changes within species but there is no scientific explanation for these limits which is guided by natural law and the limitations, whatever they are, cannot be explained by natural law;
  4. "separate ancestry of man and apes" is a bald assertion which explains nothing and refers to no scientific fact or theory;
  5. Catastrophism and any kind of Genesis Flood depend upon supernatural intervention, and cannot be explained by natural law;
  6. "Relatively recent inception" has no scientific meaning, is not the product of natural law; not explainable by natural law; nor is it tentative;
  7. No recognized scientific journal has published an article espousing the creation science theory as described in the act, and though some witnesses suggested that the scientific community was "close-minded" and so had not accepted the arguments, no witness produced a scientific article for which publication has been refused, and suggestions of censorship were not credible;
  8. A scientific theory must be tentative and always subject to revision or abandonment in light of facts that are inconsistent with, or falsify, the theory. A theory that is by its own terms dogmatic, absolutist, and never subject to revision is not a scientific theory;
  9. While anybody is free to approach a scientific inquiry in any fashion they choose, they cannot properly describe the methodology as scientific, if they start with the conclusion and refuse to change it regardless of the evidence developed during the course of the investigation.

The creationists' methods do not take data, weigh it against the opposing scientific data, and thereafter reach the conclusions stated in [the act] Instead, they take the literal wording of the Book of Genesis and attempt to find scientific support for it. The act took a two-model approach to teaching identical to the approach put forward by the Institute for Creation Research, which assumes only two explanations for the origins of life and existence of man, plants and animals: it was either the work of a creator or it was not. Creationists take this to mean that all scientific evidence which fails to support the theory of evolution is necessarily scientific evidence in support of creationism. The judgment found this to be simply a contrived dualism which has no scientific factual basis or legitimate educational purpose.

The judge concluded that "the Act was passed with the specific purpose by the General Assembly of advancing religion," and that it violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

The test that Overton developed on the basis of Michael Ruse's testimony was later criticized by the philosopher of science Larry Laudan who argued that rather than call Creation Science "non-science" it would have been more cogent to show that it was "bad science".[8] Chandra Wickramasinghe was the single scientist testifying for the defense of creationism.[9] He hypothesized on panspermia and on "the possibility of high intelligence in the Universe and of many increasing levels of intelligence converging toward a God as an ideal limit."[10]


  1. ^ a b McLean v. Arkansas, 529 F. Supp. 1255 (E.D Ark. 1982).
  2. ^ Understanding the Intelligent Design Creationist Movement: Its True Nature and Goals. Archived May 19, 2011, at the Wayback Machine (pdf) A Position Paper from the Center for Inquiry, Office of Public Policy Barbara Forrest. May 2007.
  3. ^ Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987).
  4. ^ Creationism/ID, A Short Legal History Archived August 23, 2014, at the Wayback Machine By Lenny Flank, Talk Reason
  5. ^ Scott, Eugenie (June 30, 2004). Evolution vs. Creationism. Greenwood Press. pp. 1590–1628 Kindle ed. ISBN 978-0-313-32122-1.
  6. ^ Frank Spencer, ed. (1996). History of Physical Anthropology: An Encyclopedia (Garland Reference Library of Social Science) (illustrated ed.). Routledge. p. 297. ISBN 978-0-8153-0490-6.
  7. ^ Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968).
  8. ^ Laudan, L. (1982). "Commentary: Science at the Bar-Causes for Concern". Science, Technology, & Human Values. 7 (41): 16–19. doi:10.1177/016224398200700402. JSTOR 688928. S2CID 144742882.
  9. ^ Phy-Olsen, Allene. Evolution, Creationism, and Intelligent Design
  10. ^ Fry, Iris. Emergence of Life on Earth: A Historical and Scientific Overview, Rutgers University Press, February 1, 2000

Further reading[edit]

  • Overton, W. R. (1982). "Creationism in Schools: The Decision in McLean vs. the Arkansas Board of Education". Science. 215 (4535): 934–943. doi:10.1126/science.215.4535.934. PMID 17821352.
  • Overton, W. R. (1985). "Memorandum opinion of United States District judge William R. Overton in McLean v. Arkansas, 5 January 1982". In Gilkey, L. (ed.). Creationism on trial. New York: Harper & Row.

External links[edit]