Daniel v. Waters and Steele v. Waters (1973 - 1975)

On April 30, 1973, Tennessee became the first state to pass a balanced treatment law. Intended to ensure that creationism was taught alongside evolution, this statute required any textbook discussing "a theory about origins or creation of man and his world" to give equal attention and emphasis to "the Genesis account in the Bible," as well as other unspecified theories. However, it expressly excluded "the teaching of all occult or satanical beliefs of human origin" from this requirement. It further required such textbooks to contain a disclaimer stating that any such theory "is a theory....and is not represented to be scientific fact," but exempted the "Holy Bible" from this requirement, defining it as a "reference work" rather than a textbook.

Later that year, the National Association of Biology Teachers and three of its Tennessee members — Joseph Daniel, Arthur Jones and Larry Wilder — filed suit over the law in federal court (Middle District of Tennessee). Naming as defendants the members of the Tennessee State Textbook Commission, including its chairman Hugh Waters, the plaintiffs argued that the statute violated the First Amendment with respect to the Establishment Clause, free exercise of religion, and freedom of speech and of the press. Before the state had answered the complaint in Daniel v. Waters, a second suit was filed against the Textbook Commission in state court (the Chancery Court of Davidson County, Tennessee) by Harold Steele and two other members of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, who claimed that the statute violated the constitutions of both the United States and the state of Tennessee.

The subsequent paths of Daniel v. Waters and Steele v. Waters through the legal systems were rather convoluted. The State of Tennessee moved to have the district court dismiss Daniel v. Waters, or at least abstain from adjudicating it until Steele v. Waters was decided. When the district court agreed to the later course on February 26, 1974, the plaintiffs appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which vacated the abstention order and remanded the case to the district court for a new judgment. The district court reentered the abstention order, and the plaintiffs again appealed this. Meanwhile, the Chancery Court had decided Steele v. Waters in favor of the plaintiffs, ruling on September 9, 1974, that the statute was in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The state of Tennessee appealed this ruling to the Supreme Court of Tennessee.

On April 10, 1975, a three-judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, decided Daniel v. Waters on the merits, ruling that the Tennessee statute was "patently unconstitutional." Judge George Edwards authored the majority opinion, which identified two constitutional violations in particular: the special treatment of "occult or satanical beliefs" on the one hand, and of the Genesis account on the other. Edwards wrote, "We deem the two constitutional violations described above to be patent and obvious on the face of the statute and impossible for any state interpretation to cure." Judge Anthony Celebrezze dissented, arguing that the Appeals Court did not have jurisdiction to decide the constitutional issues, but should have required the district court to decide them instead. The State of Tennessee did not appeal this decision.

On August 20, 1975, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Steele v. Waters affirming the Chancery Court's decision. In its brief opinion, which acknowledged and concurred with the Daniel v. Waters decision, the Supreme Court added that the statute also violated Tennessee's constitution.

Although state and federal courts agreed that this law was clearly unconstitutional, creationists in other states continued to champion equal-time laws until the Supreme Court struck Louisiana's Balanced Treatment Act down in Edwards v. Aguillard.

Related Off-Site Material

Kenneth Fair's HTML reprint of the Daniel v. Waters decision at Talk.Origins

Kenneth Fair's HTML reprint of the Steele v. Waters decision at Talk.Origins

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