Lawsuit targeting campus evolution website is dismissed in federal court
First Amendment defense not employed as judge rules plaintiffs lack standing
| 22 March 2006
A lawsuit by a Roseville couple who claimed that a campus website used evolution to promote religion was dismissed on March 13 in San Francisco federal court.
Without ruling on the merits of the suit, Judge Phyllis Hamilton of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted the University of California's motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing - that is, they did not have a sufficiently strong personal interest in the outcome of the case.
"We are very pleased with the judge's decision, and are hopeful that the defendants can now concentrate on helping to educate students about science," said Christopher Patti, university counsel with the UC Office of the President.
The lawsuit named not only two Berkeley professors but an administrator at the National Science Foundation (NSF), which partly funded the website. Hamilton has yet to rule on NSF's motion to dismiss.
"The lawsuit cost us a lot of time, in terms of preparation and reviewing and Xeroxing a lot of paper, plus the legal fees," said Roy Caldwell, a professor of integrative biology who is one of the Berkeley faculty members named in the suit. "I'm glad the court saw that the case should be dismissed."
Larry Caldwell, who is no relation to Roy, filed the lawsuit on Oct. 14, 2005, on behalf of his wife, Jeanne, claiming that several pages of a website called Understanding Evolution (evolution.berkeley.edu), created by Berkeley's Museum of Paleontology two years ago, "impermissibly endorse, advance, and proselytize certain religious beliefs." Larry Caldwell is with an organization called Quality Science Education for All that is dedicated, in its own words, to "science education that exposes students to the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory."
The Understanding Evolution website is intended as a resource for teaching evolution. Larry and Jeanne Caldwell took issue specifically with one web page that says it's a misconception that science and religion are incompatible.
"Basically, what we have is a page that deals with the misconceptions and challenges to the teaching of evolution, and we provided resources to teachers to answer them," said Roy Caldwell. "One of those questions is, 'Aren't religion and evolution incompatible?' And we say, 'no,' and point to a number of sites by clerics and others who make that point."
The plaintiffs alleged that these statements constituted a preference for certain religious viewpoints in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The suit singled out Caldwell and David Lindberg, also a professor of integrative biology, as the principal investigators on the NSF grant that funded the website.
While UC's Patti and lawyer William Carroll of the firm Morgenstein & Jubelirer argued that the website does not violate the First Amendment, they also filed a motion to dismiss for lack of standing. The judge chose to rule on the latter, dismissing the Caldwells' claim that accessing the website offended their religious beliefs enough to constitute an injury, thus allowing them to sue in federal court.
Roy Caldwell noted that the evolution website becomes more popular every day, drawing nearly two million hits per month from a range of users, from "third-graders to college students. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the comments we get are positive or glowing."