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Webster vs. New Lenox

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The Webster vs. New Lenox School District case involved social studies teacher Ray Webster’s right to teach creation as well as evolution in his social studies class at Oster-Oakview Junior High School in New Lenox, Illinois. A student in Webster's class protested in the spring of 1987 that Webster was violating principles of separation between church and state. Webster denied the allegations. He said his goal was not to persuade students to any viewpoint, but to show them that many viewpoints exist. On July 31, 1987, the school board asked him to restrict his teaching.

Webster brought suit, arguing that the school board's prohibitions were censorship in violation of his First and Fourteenth Amendments rights. The American Civil Liberties Union, and the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, backed the student.

United States Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit
No. 89-2317
Ray Webster, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. New Lenox School District No. 122 and Alex M. Martino
Argued February 27, 1990
Decided November 6, 1990.

District court’s ruling

On May 26, 1989, the District Court ruled against Webster, saying the first amendment is "not a teacher license for uncontrolled expression at variance with established curricular content." The court cited a 1973 case, Clard v. Holmes, which held that a "teacher has no constitutional prerogative to override the judgment of his superiors as to proper course content." [1]

On November 6, 1990, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the District Court ruling. It said the school district had not violated Webster's free speech rights when it stopped him from teaching creation science, because creation science is a form of religious advocacy. The court held that the teacher "had not been prohibited from teaching any nonevolutionary theories," but was prohibited from "religious advocacy." [2]


In a letter to Ray Webster in October 1987, Superintendent Alex M. Martino told him to stop teaching the creationist side of the argument. According to an article by creationist Dr. Jerry Bergman, Martino's letter "failed to identify any specific incidence in Mr. Webster's classroom instruction which would even remotely indicate that he had violated the constitution or laws." [3] The letter also gave no guidance on how Webster could discuss topics relevant to his social studies classes without violating the principle of separation of church and state.

Dr. Bergman—himself a victim of discrimination over his creationist views—points out that opponents of creation science often say they do not oppose teaching creation in public schools; they just don’t want it taught in science classes. Yet Ray Webster was a social studies teacher who taught in a social studies class, not a science class.

Dr. Bergman says that case records "clearly demonstrate that a non-neutral double standard exists in the court system relative to restrictions and [to] finding acceptable criteria and freedom of expression for educators... Court decisions which embrace argument extolling freedom of expression for atheists, yet which deny the same freedom for theists, are sure to set the stage for further clashes in the future, especially when rulings both for and against theists are based on the same arguments." [4]

Related references

See also