Published Online: January 24, 2006
Published in Print: January 25, 2006, as Calif. District to Scrap Course on ‘Intelligent Design’

Calif. District to Scrap Course on ‘Intelligent Design’

In the first legal skirmish over “intelligent design” since a federal judge declared it to be illegitimate science, a rural Southern California school system has agreed to drop an elective philosophy course presenting the highly charged topic.

The El Tejon Unified School District will end its Philosophy of Design course as part of a legal settlement with 11 parents and an advocacy group.

The agreement, announced by both sides Jan. 17, also bars the district from attempting to promote or endorse intelligent design, or creationism, in any future course.

Philosophy and Funding

In a statement issued Jan. 17, Superintendent John W. Wight explains the decision by California's El Tejon school district to drop the course Philosophy of Design.

"Neither the school board or its employees have promoted any religious belief in any academic setting. The idea was to have an open discussion of the different points of views on the origin of life, a philosophical exercise in critical thinking. We believe in the right setting, social and cultural issues should be discussed and studied. They have educational value and require some academic freedom. We support our educational staff and their endeavors to bring issues to our students that confront our country and society today. However, we are a small school district with limited financial resources and cannot afford to spend the amount of economic funds to defend the Philosophy of Design class in the court system."

SOURCE: El Tejon Unified School District

“Whatever debate goes on about the merits or demerits of intelligent design, that debate will go on somewhere else,” said Peter C. Carton, a lawyer for the El Tejon district. “Life goes on.”

El Tejon’s school board voted 3-2 on Jan. 1 to offer the course as part of a regular, monthlong class staged between the first and second semesters, according to court documents. That class was being taught at Frazier Mountain High School in Lebec, Calif., this month.

Parents in the 1,400-student district, joined by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington advocacy group, filed suit to halt the course shortly after the district announced the offering. They argued that it amounted to an unconstitutional insertion of religion into the public school curriculum.

The El Tejon controversy emerged less than a month after a federal judge issued a landmark ruling declaring that the Dover, Pa., school district had violated the U.S. Constitution in requiring students to be introduced to intelligent design. In addition, the judge concluded that intelligent design is religion, not valid science. ("Possible Road Map Seen in Dover Case," Jan. 4, 2006.)

Even though the Dover decision has legal standing only in the jurisdiction where it was issued, legal observers say it is likely to influence how schools across the country broach the topic.

Choosing a Setting

Intelligent design is the belief that an unidentified force has guided the development of living things, including humans, whose complexity, the proponents argue, cannot otherwise be explained. The theory of evolution, accepted by the vast majority of scientists, states that life has developed over billions of years through natural selection and random mutation.

Officials in El Tejon, a collection of communities scattered across the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles, argued that the Philosophy of Design course did not promote intelligent design, or biblically based creationism, as a viable alternative to evolution.

But in the lawsuit, the plaintiffs cited a course description that said students would discuss “the scientific, biological, and biblical aspects” suggesting that evolution is “is not rock solid.” Students would also talk about evidence suggesting that Earth is “thousands of years old,” according to the course description, as quoted in the lawsuit.

Most scientists believe Earth is at least 3 billion to 4 billion years old. Suggestions that it dates back only thousands of years, by contrast, are often associated with “young Earth” creationism, or other religiously based beliefs about the planet’s origins.

The design course in El Tejon will be compressed and end a week early, said Mr. Carton, the district’s lawyer. Students will still receive credit for it, though it will no longer be offered in the future, he said.

Many legal experts have said that discussing the design concept in a social studies or comparative-religion class is more legally defensible than attempting to present it as science. ("Some Schools Adding Evolution ‘Alternatives’ to Social Studies Class," Sept. 21, 2005.)

Yet discussing intelligent design outside science classes puts schools on safer legal ground only if the concept is presented as a belief and not as a scientific view on an equal footing with evolution, said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum, in Arlington, Va.

“They can’t set up a course to do in social studies what they can’t do in science,” said Mr. Haynes, whose organization studies constitutional issues.

‘Enormous Relief’

El Tejon Superintendent John W. Wight defended the course in a Jan. 6 letter to Americans United, vowing to prevent any instructor from “teaching or advocating the tenets of any religion or creed, including intelligent design.”

But in a statement last week explaining the settlement, the superintendent cited the potentially daunting legal costs associated with defending the course.

El Tejon has an annual budget of roughly $10 million, according to recent data from the state. Paula Harvey, a middle school English teacher in the district who opposed the class, acknowledged that having a course that discussed intelligent design would be “well supported” in the El Tejon community. But Ms. Harvey, who is also the president of the local teachers’ union, said she was pleased that the district had avoided a long, divisive legal battle.

“We feel enormous relief as teachers,” she said, “that we can get back to the jobs we’re doing.”

PHOTO: Paula Harvey, the president of the El Tejon Teachers' Association, says she is relieved that district officials settled a lawsuit stemming from a philosophy course focusing on "intelligent design."
—Niklas Larsson/AP

Vol. 25, Issue 20, Pages 5,14

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