Does a government-funded website promoting evolution violate the Constitution?

We will have to wait and see – court tosses claim because plaintiff lacked standing.

Plaintiff Caldwell was “offended” and felt like an “outsider” when she viewed a website called “Understanding Evolution” which was published by the University of California. She filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that the site, funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation, violated the First Amendment Establishment Clause by endorsing certain views on religion. For example, Caldwell claimed the site put forth the notion that “the theory of evolution is not in conflict with properly understood Christian or Jewish religious beliefs.”

The defendants, which included the director of the University of California Museum of Paleontology and a UC Berkeley biology professor, moved to dismiss Caldwell’s suit. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted the motion to dismiss.

The court held that plaintiff Caldwell lacked standing to pursue the Establishment Clause action. Among other things, she had failed to allege that she suffered an “injury in fact,” which is required for a plaintiff to sustain a lawsuit.

In reaching the conclusion that the evolution website did not cause Caldwell to suffer an injury in fact, the court first looked to the holding of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Valley Forge Christian College v. Am. United for Separation of Church & State, 454 U.S. 464 (1982). Being “offended” and feeling like an “outsider” were simply “psychological consequence[s]” produced “by observation of conduct with which [Caldwell] disagrees,” and were merely generalized grievances against the defendants, insufficient to confer injury in fact.

The court went on to reject Caldwell’s comparison of the evolution website to a public park containing religious symbols, finding the analogy “untenable”:

[A] citizen voluntarily choosing to access the internet who comes across an unwelcome message on a website page is not necessarily prevented from accessing the whole of the internet; the citizen may choose, with a simple click of the mouse, to access a different and unoffensive webpage or website.

Further, the court noted that allowing a plaintiff to claim injury from being “offended” by merely looking at a website would be the start down a slippery slope:

Given this massive appeal and impossibly broad spectrum [of the internet], it is simply inconceivable that the mere viewing of certain webpages . . . is sufficient to give rise to injury in fact standing. If this were so, then every webpage on the internet could give rise to a claim, simply based on an individual’s negative emotional response to that webpage.

Caldwell v. Caldwell, (Slip Op.) 2005 WL 618511 (N.D. Cal. March 13, 2006).

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