Possible Road Map Seen in Dover Case

Judge’s rejection of intelligent design could guide policymakers, educators.

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

In issuing a blistering, unequivocal decision declaring “intelligent design” to be illegitimate science, a federal judge in Pennsylvania may have provided an authoritative guide for school officials and science teachers seeking to defend the teaching of evolution, legal observers say.

The landmark ruling last month by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III not only found the Dover, Pa., district’s policy promoting intelligent design unconstitutional, but also delved deeply into the scientific claims of the concept itself—and thoroughly rejected them.

For More Info
Read U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III's opinion in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, posted by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District in Pennsylvania. Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader

“Many school board members and educators need a way to resolve this, in communities where they may be looking for alternatives to evolution,” said Charles A. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Foundation, in Arlington, Va., which studies constitutional issues. “It gives school boards a way to say to their communities, ‘The public school is not the place for this.’ ”

Even so, the judge’s decision, issued Dec. 20, is unlikely to end efforts by supporters of intelligent design to introduce the concept into public school science classes, lawyers and others who followed the Dover case say. But it will almost certainly force those advocates to recast their strategies, in attempting to answer Judge Jones’ sweeping, point-by-point critique.

The Dover case was the first in the country to consider the constitutionality of presenting intelligent design in public school science classes. In the ruling, Judge Jones found that the Dover school board had violated the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion in requiring that students be introduced to intelligent design, which he concluded was the offspring of biblically based creationism.

“The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view,” the judge wrote, “a mere relabeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.”

While the ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District has legal standing only in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, where the judge issued it, it could strongly influence other judges in future court battles over intelligent design, legal observers speculate.

Law and Science

How the Judge Called It

In an expansively and, at times, sharply worded decision, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III declared that the Dover, Pa., school district’s policy casting doubt on evolution and exposing biology students to “intelligent design” was unconstitutional. Here is a sampling from the Dec. 20 ruling.

Dover schools’ written statement about evolution:

“The disclaimer singles out the theory of evolution for special treatment, misrepresents its status in the scientific community, causes students to doubt its validity without scientific justification, presents students with a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory, directs them to consult a creationist text as though it were a science resource, and instructs students to forgo scientific inquiry in the public school classroom and instead seek out religious instruction elsewhere.”

The argument that intelligent design is science:

“ID is reliant upon forces acting outside of the natural world, forces that we cannot see, replicate, control, or test, which have produced changes in this world. While we take no position on whether such forces exist, they are simply not testable by scientific means and therefore cannot qualify as part of the scientific process or as a scientific theory.”

The identity of the master intelligent designer:

“Although proponents of [intelligent design] occasionally suggest that the designer could be a space alien or a time-traveling cell biologist, no serious alternative to God as the designer has been proposed. …”

The view of the scientific community:

“Not a single expert witness over the course of the six-week trial identified one major scientific association, society, or organization that endorsed ID as science.”

The beliefs of supporters of intelligent design:

“We do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. … [O]ur conclusion is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.”

Intelligent design is the belief that certain features of living things, including humans, show signs of having been crafted by an unnamed guiding force. Most scientists say that concept is not science because it relies on supernatural and possibly religious explanations, which cannot be tested by the rules of science.

Scientific opinion overwhelmingly supports the theory of evolution, which posits that humans and other living things developed over billions of years through natural selection and random mutation. That explanation, built most famously on the pioneering work of the 19th-century British naturalist Charles Darwin, is backed up by years of study of the fossil record, microbiology, and other areas.

Unlike several other cases on the teaching of evolution, Judge Jones allowed long stretches of the Dover case to focus almost exclusively on science. Supporters of evolution hope that the specific focus of the trial—and the judge’s conclusions—will sway legal and public opinion to their side.

For six weeks this past fall, the judge oversaw what amounted to an elaborate tutorial on intelligent design, featuring labyrinthine scientific testimony, the careful parsing of academic research, and a steady display of biochemical illustrations projected onto a courtroom wall. In his opinion, the judge said that after hearing 21 days of testimony, he felt compelled and qualified to weigh in on the science at stake.

“The court is confident that no other tribunal in the United States is in a better position than we are to traipse into this controversial area,” he wrote, adding that he hoped his opinion would keep other courts from wasting resources by also laboring over “the precise question before us.”

The trial focused on an October 2004 decision by the Dover school board to approve a new high school science curriculum that referred to “gaps/problems” in evolution and required that students be introduced to “other theories,” such as intelligent design. District officials later approved a policy saying that 9th grade biology students would have a statement read to them introducing intelligent design.

That decision sparked bitter divisions in the 3,600-student district, located in the rolling farm country of south-central Pennsylvania, about an hour’s drive from the federal court in Harrisburg where Judge Jones heard the case. Eleven parents, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sued to halt the curriculum change and the statement.

The court case played out amid a wave of efforts by state and local policymakers to have public schools take a skeptical stance on evolutionary theory. One such move occurred in Kansas, where the state board of education in November approved revised science standards that include more criticism of evolution. ("Evolution Loses and Wins, All in One Day," Nov. 16, 2005.)

Supporters of intelligent design are likely to look for loopholes in the Dover court decision, and craft policies that another judge might find legally sound, said Thomas Hutton, a staff lawyer for the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va.

John G. West, an official for the Discovery Institute, which backs intelligent design, agreed that school officials would continue to seek ways to discuss the concept. While his organization opposes efforts to mandate the teaching of intelligent design—in part because of worries that it would be taught inaccurately—he denounced the judge’s ruling as “a futile effort to decide the intelligent-design issue by court order and censorship.”

Mr. West predicted that schools were likely to push ahead with efforts to examine the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolutionary theory. He rejected the idea that other judges would be influenced by Judge Jones’ interpretation of the science.

“He heard a lot of testimony,” Mr. West said, “but much of his opinion suggests he had one ear open.”

Mr. West pointed to another evolution-related case being heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, that he believes could yield a different outcome. That case centers on the 104,000-student Cobb County, Ga., district’s decision to put stickers on high school biology textbooks labeling evolution “a theory, not a fact.” A year ago, a federal district judge declared those stickers unconstitutional; the school district appealed the decision. ("Judge Orders Removal of Evolution Disclaimers," Jan. 19, 2005.)

An appeal of the Dover decision seems highly unlikely, however. In November, voters in the Pennsylvania district ousted all eight incumbent school board members up for election, all of whom favored the intelligent-design policy. Eight challengers who opposed the policy replaced them. The victorious candidates have said they plan to adhere to the ruling by Judge Jones.

The judge, a 50-year-old former litigator, maintained a friendly, occasionally witty tone throughout much of the trial. An unsuccessful Republican candidate for Congress in 1992, Judge Jones was appointed to the federal bench by President Bush four years ago.

In his opinion, however, the judge blasted the actions of Dover board members, some of whom he said had spoken openly about wanting creationism in the curriculum, lied about it under oath, and on the whole acted with “breathtaking inanity.”

In the wake of the Dover case, intelligent-design advocates are likely to be “much more careful in their public utterances” about religion, Mr. Hutton of the NSBA said.

Failing the Test

In his ruling, Judge Jones went well beyond discussing Dover officials’ actions, to consider intelligent design itself. And ultimately, he found it completely lacking a scientific basis.

A central example was his analysis of “irreducible complexity,” a core principle of intelligent design, which says that certain biological mechanisms, made up of multiple parts, cease to function when one part is removed. Such systems, according to that argument, could not have been formed by the slow, gradual process of evolution, because the absence of any part would cause the system to stop functioning.

A leading voice in the intelligent-design movement, Lehigh University biochemistry professor Michael Behe, outlined the concept at the trial, using the motor-like actions of bacterial flagellum as an example of an irreducibly complex system. Irreducible complexity has received attention in evolution-related controversies. It is specifically mentioned in Kansas’ rewritten state standards, though that document does not advocate intelligent design.

But the judge found that the irreducible complexity argument collapsed upon inspection. The flagellum, he said, functioned perfectly well without certain component parts—not as a motor, but as a secretory system. Research has also shown that evolution could produce such a mechanism, he wrote.

Other functions said by intelligent-design proponents to be irreducibly complex, such as blood clotting, also have been proved to work without certain parts, Judge Jones added. In sum, the case for complexity, unlike other aspects of intelligent design, was testable by the rules of science, the judge concluded—and it failed that test.

By examining such topics in detail, the ruling gives science teachers a vital tool to use in countering intelligent-design advocates, said Gerald F. Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. His 55,000-member group, based in Arlington, Va., opposes teaching the concept as science.

“It’s going to relieve some of the pressure that’s been on teachers,” Mr. Wheeler said.

“The clarity of [Judge Jones’] decision,” he added, “will give teachers talking points when there’s a conflict.”

PHOTO: Plaintiffs' lawyer Eric J. Rothschild, front, and Witold "Vic" Walczak of the ACLU respond to questions after the U.S. District Court ruling.
—Daniel Shanken/AP
PHOTO: Plaintiffs Tammy Kitzmiller and Christy Rehm express their joy during a press conference after the decision in the Dover case.
—Daniel Shanken/AP

Vol. 25, Issue 16, Pages 1, 10-11

Published in Print: January 4, 2006, as Possible Road Map Seen in Dover Case
Web Resources
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories