Warren Dunn

The Cost of Creationism (from a recent presentation)

Author’s Note: Obtaining true costs of the cases in which creationism was contested is extremely difficult. I welcome any corrections, additions, adjustments to the cost estimates I present here.

Warren Dunn


Thank you for inviting me to discuss with you today what I consider to be an important subject that affects the quality of instruction in our public schools.

I was told that I might be preaching to the choir if all I do is maintain that science is science and religion is religion and the two should not interfere with one another in the same classroom. Your own association (the Unitarian Universalist Association) in 1977 and again in 1982, adopted a resolution that reads, in part, quote -“oppose(s) efforts to compromise the integrity of public school teaching by the introduction of sectarian religious doctrines, such as “scientific creationism…” So my purpose today won’t be to try to convince you that evolution is more scientific than the theology of creationism. However, I will, in a few moments, define my terms by sharing with you my interpretation of what is meant by creationism and intelligent design, just so we have a starting point for a larger purpose. I will skip giving you a definition of evolution. My guess is that most of you in the room are familiar with evolution and have come to your own conclusions about it. Personally, I am persuaded that biology as it is taught in our schools depends on certain tenants of evolution developed through scientific inquiry over the course of almost 200 years. I cannot imagine biology being taught any other way.

My specific interest is whether creationism or intelligent design – and they are somewhat different, as we will see – should be taught as a viable alternative to evolution in the science classroom. If anyone is interested enough to pursue the science and the theology, I can recommend that you do a couple of things. One is to read this book. The second is to read the transcript of Professor Kevin Padian’s testimony in the Fitzmiller vs. Dover case, which is not only illuminating but entertaining.

My much more narrow interest in this whole issue lies in how much the several court cases brought by parents or organizations on both sides of the question is costing us as taxpayers and whether it is such an egregious misallocation of scarce resources that it is doing irreparable harm to our public educational system. I must confess that my three years of research into this issue is woefully incomplete. Perhaps, especially if there are any lawyers in the group, you will agree that it is difficult to pin down exactly how much any lawsuit costs because of client confidentiality privileges. Regardless, I have plowed on, reading the transcripts of several cases and then turning to the National Center for State Courts and their Court Statistics Project for their estimates of court costs by type of case. I also reviewed two U.S. Supreme Court cases, using estimates provided by the web site Marketplace Economy and, supplemented by a back of the napkin kind of math, I assigned costs to those cases. Other than the actual transcripts, none of the sources trying to estimate costs is completely satisfactory for my purposes because in the case of anything dealing with public school curricula state and county bureaucracies and state legislatures are involved and there are costs attendant to that.

Today, because I want to leave time for discussion, I will briefly describe the outcomes of only four of the ten state and two Supreme Court cases that are considered landmark cases in the question of whether creationism and/or intelligent design can be taught in schools. I promise not to read from the transcripts themselves. Instead, I have relied on what most of those I consulted regard as an accurate compilation and synopses of important cases, which was done by the National Center for Science Education. You should know that the NCSE exists largely to ensure that evolution and climate change are kept in the science classroom and creationism and climate change denial are kept out.

I have confined my research to the “public” educational system. I have not studied the private secondary educational systems because they have a right to teach, or preach, anything they like as long as they don’t scream fire in a movie house.

Before I get into the costs, and as promised, let me define creationism and intellectual design. I am indebted to Dr. Padian for the definition of intelligent design, but let’s start with creationism because it’s been around the longest. About two thousand years. Simply put, it is a belief held by some of the Christian faith that the world and, indeed, the universe and mankind, were created just as described in Genesis. The true creationists accept Biblical stories as literal truth.

After the theory of evolution was first expostulated 1,800 years later, a variation of creationism emerged that flowered mostly in the 1960s and 70s and is still with us. It is called creation science and it is an attempt by certain conservative Christians – most recently by Ken Ham, who was the keynote speaker at Winston-Salem’s Piedmont International University in May – who hold some science or engineering degrees to attempt to find scientific evidence for Bible stories or explain them in scientific terms.

Intelligent design, according to Dr. Padian, doesn’t have as its objective, unlike creationism, to validate Bible stories, but, shares with creation science, in part, the insistence that things were designed and could not have evolved because organisms are so complex that they had to stem from some unknown forces or a supernatural being commonly referred to as God. Almost every religion I have come across has some kind of foundation story that implies the hand of God or Gods played a significant role, even peoples we commonly refer to as pagans. The whole point of intelligent design is to undermine the evidence for evolution because it obviously refutes the notion that the guiding hand of God was not necessary to explain the origins of mankind. I have always been somewhat amused by how delicate a subject this is, even among such noted scientists and thinkers as Stephen Hawking. At one point, he claimed there was nothing in his theories that denied the presence of God and then several years later he didn’t quite reverse himself, but said that God wasn’t necessary. And if you read the papers produced by those who defend Intelligent Design, they make fascinating reading. If anyone is interested we can talk about cogs and dats later.

Now that I have completely bored you with my disclaimers, source citations, and definitions, let me plunge into the abyss of my own conclusions. By the way, most of this stuff can be found on the internet, which is a lot more fun to use than the dusty library stacks that I used to roam around in helplessly.

Since 1968, when the first of the cases I will be referring to was settled, either state courts, appeals courts, district courts or the Supreme Court have, in effect, decided that any effort to introduce creationism or intelligent design into the curriculum of public schools or to prohibit the teaching of evolution in science classes is:

  1. in violation of the establishment clause of the constitution,
  2. does not violate the freedom of speech provision,
  3. does not interfere with the free exercise of religion,
  4. impermissibly endorses religion, and
  5. denies the right of duly elected school officials to develop a curriculum.


Of course, there are nuances in all these cases and if time permits, I will touch on some of them later.

Based on the outcomes of lawsuits over the past 46 years, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that if creationists pursue a case or state legislatures pass laws that force local school districts to permit the teaching of creationism or intelligent design, by whatever clever means they might wish to employ, or school boards themselves dictate that creationism must be taught as a counterpoint to evolution, such efforts may not be the best investment of taxpayer money. Yet that does not stop zealots from trying. The Pew Research Group recently identified 13 states that have dealt with the issue of creationism in the schools just since 2000. Last year, Tennessee enacted a law that would allow the discussion of creationism in a science class as an alternative theory to evolution and there are several conservative Christian groups preparing to protest the recent Texas Board of Education’s decision to come down squarely on the side of science and remove a clause in their standards of teaching policy requiring teachers to examine the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories such as evolution. Periodically, an Oklahoma state legislator introduces a bill requiring schools to treat evolution as a theory only and intelligent design as an alternative.

Now, for the costs in the four cases I have selected as demonstrating the range of costs involved in pursuing creationism.

The Epperson v. Arkansas case, in which the Supreme Court held that any attempt by the state to prohibit the teaching of evolution was, in effect, protecting a specific religious doctrine and was unconstitutional, took over three years to resolve and is considered a landmark case. By my calculations, the suit cost the Arkansas taxpayers at least $188,000 in the period 1965-1968 and this does not include the costs of buying new textbooks for every high school in Arkansas when the Supreme Court decided that the textbooks in use were teaching a particular religious view, which was unconstitutional. By the way, all my estimates are on the low side. One recent Supreme Court case cost $620,000 and estimates of the “average” case, whatever that is, is roughly a quarter million dollars.

In 1981, in Segraves vs. State of California, it was found that the California antidogmatism policy accommodated Mr. Segraves contrary to his contention that class discussion of evolution prohibited his and his children’s free exercise of religion. This case is interesting because the antidogmatism policy emphasizes that scientific explanations should not be presented dogmatically, but conditionally, so Mr. Segraves could not claim his exercise of religious liberty was infringed upon. For our purposes here, Mr. Segraves lost his case, but each side had to bare legal costs and fees. I am estimating the cost of this case to be less than $100,000.

I have pretty precise reports on the McLean vs. Arkansas Board of Education case in 1982, in which a federal court upheld earlier decisions that any effort to introduce creationism into the curriculum was unconstitutional and also declared that creationism was not science. Costs of $1,171,513.50 in fees and $189,892.55 in costs and litigation expenses were submitted, with plaintiffs submitting supplement motions requesting attorney’s fees for an additional 245 hours also be paid. Ultimately, the fees were reduced and a settlement for a lesser amount was reached. Nonetheless, the state of Arkansas had to dip into its treasury one more time.

I cannot calculate the complete costs of trying the Edwards vs. Aguillard case, which, in 1987, overturned Louisiana’s prohibition of teaching evolution in public classrooms. But by any standards it must have been substantial. The case wound its way through the District Court, the First Circuit Court of Appeals and finally landed on the Supreme Court. Applying the fee pattern established by my research, I would claim that this case cost the state of Louisiana something over $2 million dollars.

And now we come to my favorite Supreme Court case. Kitzmiller versus Dover in 2005. Dover is a small town just west of York, Pennsylvania. The Dover area school board was ordered to refrain from maintaining an Intelligent Design Policy in their school system. The policy claimed that the theory of evolution had gaps and that students should be made aware of alternative theories about the origin of the species, including Intelligent Design. The decision of the court was that it was “abundantly clear that the Board’s ID policy violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution and that the theory of Intelligent Design is not science and cannot be accepted as a valid scientific theory, for several reasons. This landmark case established that, legally anyway, intelligent design was more theology than science.

As for costs, the Dover Area School Board voted to pay a $1,000,000 legal fee, plus $1 to each of the several plaintiffs in the lawsuit. To quote the transcript, the school district and its taxpayers paid a heavy price because a few creationism-pushing school board members thought that the constitution did not apply to them. The legal fees were actually greater than $2 million, but the law firm that represented the plaintiffs accepted payment for out-of-pocket costs because – and I am quoting from the Center for Science Education – “the firm was also more willing to compromise because the school board that voted for the policy was voted out of office and a new school board is having the bill placed in their laps.”

It is abundantly clear, at least to me, that any attempt to introduce creationism or intelligent design into the science curriculum as a viable alternative to evolution is going to cost taxpayers a lot of money in legal fees and is very likely to fail. If you agree with my contention that any expenditure of taxpayer money on this issue is a misdirection of funds that could be put to better use, then I would like to pose a question for discussion. Does, in your opinion, the Christian community at large have any role in resisting the inclusion of any form of creationism in a science curriculum?

Thank you for your attention.