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Fact check: Does Texas teach creationism in public schools? Is it constitutional?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s comments to a child in New Hampshire that creationism and evolution are taught in public schools created a lot of attention in the blogosphere.

"In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools," the governor deadpanned into the eyes of an elementary-school-age boy, whose mother was asking her son to ask the governor why he doesn't believe in science.

So is creationism actually taught in Texas public schools? And is it constitutional?

Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, the state’s teachers’ union, says, “It is not part of the recognized official state curriculum.”

But, Robison, who criticized Perry for "trying to reach right-wing voters," added, “I can’t say that some teacher someplace” that isn’t widely known about, isn’t teaching it.

More definitively, Suzanne Marchman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, the state’s version of the Department of Education, tells NBC, the state’s science standards for high-school biology “require students to analyze, evaluate, and critique, scientific explanations.”

And since teachers craft their own lesson plans, “It’s likely that other theories, likely creationism, are being discussed in class" -- whether it's because teachers plan lessons around it, or because students bring it up.

Marchman also explained that there is an elective course on Biblical history. “And so certainly, a teacher could include discussion of creationism in a Bible class,” she said, adding, “The curriculum doesn’t require them to teach [creationism and evolution] side-by-side, but because teachers craft their lesson plan at the local level, it’s a local decision. So the state doesn’t offer up the specifics of what’s required to be taught.”

But is it constitutional?

In fact, if it were true that the state of Texas required its public schools to teach both evolution and creationism, that would almost certainly be unconstitutional.

State officials and school officials, though, said there is no Texas law or state education standard requiring the teaching of both. Instead, again, state-education policy requires students to "analyze, evaluate, and critique" the scientific basis for evolution. Defenders of the governor said he was merely describing what often happens in classrooms, as students discuss the merits of evolution versus creationism.

In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that requiring the teaching of creationism, or forbidding the teaching of evolution, violates the separation of church and state. The court struck down a Louisiana law that banned teaching evolution unless accompanied by instruction in creationism. 

The law's purpose, wrote Justice William Brennan for the court's majority, "was to restructure the science curriculum to conform with a particular religious viewpoint. Out of many possible science subjects taught in the public schools, the legislature chose to affect the teaching of the one scientific theory that historically has been opposed by certain religious sects."

The central question, the court said, was the law's purpose. Louisiana's intent, the majority concluded, was to endorse a particular religious doctrine. But, the court added, "teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction."