Lesson Plan

Influencing Policy: Evolution and the First Amendment


This 11-minute video introduces students to the debate surrounding the teaching of evolution in public school classrooms, focusing on how an anti-evolution think tank convinced Louisiana’s state government to change how evolution was taught, and how one high school student waged a campaign backed by 78 Nobel laureates to oppose these changes. This video explores how policy disputes over teaching evolution have been shaped by the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause. The video is useful for lessons about the First Amendment and the court rulings that have defined it, or for lessons focused on how single-issue groups and citizens seek to influence public policy.


  • How single-issue groups and ideological movements can influence society and policy making.
  • How students, scientists, and single-issue advocacy organizations have sought to influence educational policy.
  • How the controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution relates to the First Amendment’s establishment clause and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Epperson v. State of Arkansas.
  • Psychology
  • Social Studies
  • Civics & Government
  • Science
  • AP Psychology
  • Civic Engagement
  • Cultural and Social Change
  • Religion
  • 21st Century
  • The First Amendment
  • Evolution
For Teachers

Introducing the Lesson

Evolution is a scientifically established principle of biology, but some skeptics are trying to change the way it is taught in public school science classrooms.

A number of states have considered “academic freedom bills,” which would require or encourage teachers to question theories that are widely accepted by scientists, like evolution and climate change.

The backers of such bills, like the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, say they are seeking to stimulate vigorous debate. But opponents believe these bills are an effort by conservative Christians to introduce religion into public school science classes, an action prohibited by the Constitution.

In 1925, the Scopes Trial (formally State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes and widely known as the Scopes Monkey Trial) brought the debate over evolution to national attention. Mr. Scopes, a high school teacher in Tennessee, challenged a state law that prohibited teachers from denying the Biblical version of humanity’s origins as a six-day creation.

He. was charged with unlawfully teaching about evolution based on the findings of Charles Darwin, who made the scientific case that all living things evolved from a shared common ancestry.

After a dramatic trial, Scopes was quickly convicted by a jury, and fined $100.

That victory inspired other states to pass similar laws, and it was not until 1968 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such laws violated the separation of church and state, as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Since then the courts have ruled that a variety of scientific theories about human origins are legally acceptable to be taught in public schools. Meanwhile various attempts, often by conservative Christians, to push “intelligent design” or “creationism” curricula as scientifically valid have failed.

Essential Questions

  • How did the Louisiana Science Education Act change educational policy in that state?
  • How did Zack Kopplin seek to influence policy in response to the Louisiana Science Education Act?
  • What is the theory of “intelligent design”?
  • How has the Discovery Institute sought to influence policy? How has it structured its model bill for educational policy so as to help local school districts avoid First Amendment legal challenges?

Lesson Procedure

  • In its 1968 ruling in Epperson v. State of Arkansas, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public school classrooms. The Court ruled that the government “must be neutral in matters of religious theory, doctrine, and practice” and that it should not “aid, foster, or promote one religion or religious theory against another.” Given this ruling, do you think it is constitutional to teach “intelligent design” in public school classrooms? Should “intelligent design” be considered a scientific theory or a religious doctrine?
  • To what extent should public opinion influence how science is taught in public schools? How should we decide what is taught in science class, and who should decide? If most voters and taxpayers in a given school district don’t believe in climate change, why should they be expected to pay for textbooks and teacher salaries, only to have their children learn about ideas they don’t agree with?
  • What are the advantages that an organized group like the Discovery Institute has over an individual student like Zack Kopplin in influencing policy? Why do people seeking to influence policy tend to form groups or organizations to advance their views?

Additional Resources

Transcript for "Raising Doubts about Evolution… in Science Class"Retro Report 
Questioning Evolution: The Push to Change Science ClassRetro Report 
Audio Interview: "Raising Doubts About Evolution…In Science Class"WNYC 

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Skill 1.E: Explain how various political processes apply to different scenarios in context.

Questions? Tips? Concerns? Reach out to our Director of Education, David Olson: dolson@retroreport.com