Published Online: December 20, 2005

U.S. Judge Rules Intelligent Design Has No Place in Science Classrooms

In a decision that could have broad implications for public schools across the country, a federal judge in Pennsylvania has ruled that “intelligent design” is not legitimate science, but rather an unconstitutional religious concept with direct ties to biblically based creationism.

In a sweeping, often acerbically worded 139-page ruling released Dec. 20, U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones III concluded that school board members in Dover, Pa., had religious motivations in approving a district policy requiring that high school students be introduced to the design concept as an alternative to the theory of evolution.

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“We have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science,” the judge wrote in his opinion, referring to intelligent design. “We have concluded that it is not, and moreover, that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.”

While the decision has legal standing only in the jurisdiction where it was issued—the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania—legal observers have said they expect it to influence similar court cases as well as decisions by local school districts in other parts of the country. The Dover case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, was the first to consider whether intelligent design was a religious belief in disguise, or an emerging science worthy of a place in public school science classes.

The Dover case, which Judge Jones heard in a Harrisburg, Pa., courtroom this fall, played out as attempts to subject the teaching of evolution to more criticism have emerged in districts across the nation. Intelligent design is the belief that an unidentified architect has played a role in shaping the development of living things, including humans. That notion, which is rejected by the vast majority of scientists, stands in stark contrast to the theory of evolution, which says that humans and other living things have evolved over time through natural selection and random mutation, from common ancestors.

Judge Jones wrote that it was fair to have intelligent design “studied, debated, and discussed”—but it could not be legally presented as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom. The Dover school board’s motive was to “advance creationism,” he wrote, not only by promoting intelligent design but by disparaging evolution.

The judge cited a series of previous, crucial court cases in weighing the constitutional validity of the Dover school board’s intelligent design policy, approved in October and November of 2004. One such case was the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Edwards v. Aguillard, in which the high court declared it unconstitutional to require that schools balance the teaching of evolution with forms of creationism, the belief that God created the universe and all living things.

Blunt Language

In blunt language, Judge Jones said he found suggestions that acceptance of evolution amounted to rejection of religion “utterly false.” He also wrote that he found expert testimony from scientists expressing their unequivocal support for evolution to be compelling. Those experts said the theory of evolution “represents good science,” the judge noted, “is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a supernatural creator.”

“To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect,” the judge wrote. However, “that should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom, or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.”

The jurist, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Bush in 2002, also seemed acutely aware of the volatile political and cultural environment in which his ruling was being issued.

“Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge,” Mr. Jones wrote. “If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-formed faction on a school board, aided by a national public-interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the board to accept an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy.”

The Dover opinion was issued as a federal appeals court in Atlanta, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, considers another heavily scrutinized case on the teaching of evolution. The Cobb County, Ga., school system is appealing a ruling last year that forced school officials to remove stickers from high school biology textbooks that, in language similar to the Dover policy, labeled evolution “a theory, not a fact.”

John Witte Jr., the director of the center for the study of law and religion at Emory University, near Atlanta, said that the Dover case was unlikely to settle the issue. “It’s simply going to foment a great deal of new experimentation among districts,” he said. “It’s not the final word on this subject by any means. It’s probably the first battle in what could be a decade or more of battles.”

Mr. Witte said Judge Jones’ opinion followed “standard textbook logic,” in citing previous court precedent, though he was surprised by the ruling’s strong tone. While the decision rejected intelligent design’s place in public school science classes, he noted, it was not likely to affect efforts by schools to discuss the design concept in other venues, such as the social sciences, or in religion or philosophy settings. That option has been advocated by officials in a number of school districts around the country.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based organization that joined 11 Dover parents as a plaintiff in the case, issued a statement praising the ruling, calling it a blow to efforts to “sneak fundamentalist dogma into public schools under the guise of science.”

Evolution of a Trial

The 3,600-student Dover school district, about a two-hour drive west of Philadelphia, was thrust into the worldwide spotlight as the result of a few, relatively brief changes to district policy. In the summer of 2004, district officials began considering the purchase of a widely used textbook, Biology, written by Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine. The book, a staple of high school science classrooms nationwide, drew strong objections from a number of Dover board members, including then-board member William Buckingham, who publicly described it as being “laced with Darwinism,” according to court documents. Not long after that, the district received an anonymous donation of 60 copies of a pro-intelligent-design text, Of Pandas and People, a gift approved by the Dover school board.

On Oct. 18, 2004, the Dover school board voted 6-3 to revise the high school science curriculum to include the following statement: “Students will be made aware of gaps/ problems in Darwin’s theory, and of other theories of evolution, including, but not limited to, intelligent design.”

That decision set off strong divisions throughout the rural community and among school board members, a number of whom resigned in the months after the vote. The rifts grew more pronounced a month later, when district officials announced that students would have a four-paragraph statement read to them during 9th grade biology classes introducing them to intelligent design. That statement said evolution is “still being tested,” alleged that “gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence,” and presented intelligent design as “an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.” In December of 2004, 11 parents, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, sued in federal court to halt the policy. They were led by Tammy J. Kitzmiller, an office manager at a local landscaping company, whose two daughters attend Dover High School. The school district was represented by the Thomas More Law Center, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based group that offers legal help in cases of religious freedom.

The trial, which began this past September, unfolded over the course of six weeks on the 9th floor of a federal courthouse in downtown Harrisburg. The case drew a swarm of reporters from news organizations around the world.

While testimony focused on the actions and motivations of Dover district officials, lawyers on both sides also took on the much larger question of whether intelligent design amounted to religion or science. Witnesses offered expert testimony in biology, chemistry, geology, genetics, and other areas, aimed at proving the design concept’s legitimacy or fraudulence as science.

Judge Jones

Judge Jones, a 51-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair, governed the proceedings with an easygoing, often witty manner, which contrasted with the long stretches of enormously detailed, sometimes monotonous testimony. He mediated lawyers’ skirmishes over the questioning of witnesses, and occasionally drew laughter from the court with quips about his limitations–and those of the court audience–to make sense of the steady stream of scientific minutiae.

A native of Schuylkill County in northeastern Pennsylvania, the judge was confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate in 2002, not long after being nominated by President Bush. Before presiding over the Dover trial, the longtime trial lawyer was perhaps best known for leading the transition team of former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, and for later serving as chairman of the state’s liquor control board.

During the latter stages of the trial, the judge’s genial tone vanished on at least one occasion, when a Dover school board member, Alan Bonsell, appeared to repeatedly contradict his earlier statements in a sworn deposition. Mr. Jones asked to see a copy of the board member’s deposition, then took the unusual step of grilling Mr. Bonsell on the stand about those discrepancies, according to a court transcript.

In particular, the judge wanted to know why Mr. Bonsell had not revealed that a fellow board member, Mr. Buckingham, had solicited donations at a local church for the purchase of pro-intelligent design textbooks. Mr. Buckingham, according to testimony, then gave the donations to Mr. Bonsell, who passed on that money to his father.

In his ruling, Judge Jones seemed to have those sort of inconsistencies firmly in mind, when he concluded that Dover officials had continually misrepresented facts in trying to defend their actions. Dover residents were “poorly served” by board members, he said.

“It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID policy,” the judge ruled.

In November, residents of Dover rendered their own judgment. Eight incumbent school board members, all of whom had voiced support for the intelligent-design policy, were ousted from office in an election, and replaced by eight challengers, all of whom opposed the policy.

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