Dover, Pa., Board Race Takes Intelligent Design to Voters

By Sean Cavanagh — June 14, 2005 6 min read
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Bernadette Reinking is a retired nurse, a registered Republican, and at 58, a first-time candidate for the school board. But this is no ordinary election, as the political novice is often reminded as she canvasses front porches and farmhouses for votes in this community in south-central Pennsylvania.

Some locals greet her warmly, offering promises of support on the fall ballot. Others, she has found, listen to her in stony silence, gritting their teeth, the veins in their necks bulging. A few encounters have prompted a more visceral reaction. One resident responded to her introduction by bounding around near his front doorstep, in an apparent imitation of a gorilla.

“Do you think we come from apes?” he demanded of the candidate.

Seven incumbent school board members in the 3,600-student district are listed in this billboard during the primary campaign earlier this year.

“I told him he was going to have a coronary if he didn’t settle down,” Ms. Reinking recalled with a chuckle and a shake of her head. “He went over the divide.”

Such chasms may prove difficult to bridge here this summer and fall. The upcoming school board election is likely to focus squarely on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution—and claims of alternatives to it—with results that could echo far beyond the 3,600-student Dover Area School District.

On Nov. 8, voters will elect seven candidates to the school board from a list of 14 contenders, whose opinions on the classroom role of intelligent design are expected to dominate stump speeches and campaign ads the way property taxes and school repairs might in other years.

The agenda for this election was set last October, when the nine-member Dover school board voted 6-3 to require that high school biology students be made aware of purported flaws in Darwin’s theory and be told of intelligent design. Seven current school board members, all of whom will appear on the ballot as Republicans, are running and have campaigned in favor of the board policy.

Those incumbents will face seven opponents. At least three of those challengers are registered Republicans, though all seven will be listed on the ballot as Democrats because they finished as the top vote-getters in the Democratic primary in May, according to a group representing them, Dover CARES, or Citizens Actively Reviewing Educational Strategies.

The board’s decision angered some district teachers and drew a federal lawsuit from American Civil Liberties Union, which, like many critics, regards intelligent design as religious belief in disguise.

Similar debates over intelligent design’s place in science classes are playing out in states and school districts around the country. But while those fights have addressed the concept primarily on scientific and philosophical grounds, intelligent design may be facing its most visible grassroots political test in Dover.

Intelligent design is the belief that natural phenomena, including human life, are too complex to have developed without the guidance of a master architect, or designer. That view contrasts with the theory of evolution as advanced in the mid-19th century by the British naturalist Darwin, who concluded that species evolve through natural selection and random mutation.

The theory of evolution—accepted by the vast majority of scientists, who stress that such a “theory” is no mere hypothesis or hunch—provides evidence of links between humans and ancestral hominids that scientists believe walked the earth millions of years ago. That picture of human origins still rankles some voters on the campaign trail, as Ms. Reinking discovered.

‘Is That All There Is?’

Ms. Reinking opposes the school board’s policy—though not, she says, intelligent design itself. She and the other members of Dover CARES define themselves as people of faith who believe intelligent design should be allowed in Dover’s schools—just not in science class.

A competing slate of candidates is supported in another billboard.

“When I go door to door, people want to know where I stand on intelligent design,” said Ms. Reinking. “We feel it’s a matter of the heart, and the soul, and the mind. It’s not a scientific theory.”

That view is not shared by Alan Bonsell, an auto-repair-shop owner in his fourth year on the board who said the district policy on intelligent design is routinely distorted by political opponents and the news media.

“Why wouldn’t you be for expanding kids’ science education?” Mr. Bonsell asked. “We have confidence in the people in our area. We have to find a way to get the truth out to the people, because they won’t get it in the newspaper.”

The science curriculum approved by Dover’s board says that 9th grade biology 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.”

But Mr. Bonsell and school administrators say the policy requires only that students be given a brief introduction to the design concept, through the reading of a single statement, rather than be exposed to it throughout biology class. (That issue is a subject of dispute in the ACLU lawsuit, in which one of the Dover CARES candidates, Bryan Rehm, is a plaintiff.)

In January, Dover school administrators read that four-paragraph statement, which says that Darwin’s theory “is not a fact,” to students after several Dover science teachers refused to do so.

“What, in that statement, is religion?” Mr. Bonsell said. “When I tell people [about the statement], they kind of look at me strange, like, ‘Is that all there is?’ ”

Other campaign issues are decidedly more local. Dover CARES has attacked the incumbents for approving property-tax increases, which averaged 6.5 percent over the past three years, district records show. But Mr. Bonsell said that the tax rate was comparable with those of surrounding school systems, and that the board has managed district dollars wisely.

Throughout the primary season, candidates sounded competing themes on yard signs, brochures, and roadside billboards, while often playing not so subtly on the evolution issue. “The ‘Intelligent’ Choice,” one roadside ad for the incumbents announced. “Quality Education With Fiscal Responsibility,” a Dover CARES display responded. “Common Sense—Common Cause.”

The election is drawing interest from outside parties. The Pennsylvania affiliate of the National Education Association donated $2,100 through its political action committee to a PAC run by Dover CARES, records show.

Centrist Message

Yet as the nationwide debate over attempts to bring intelligent design into public school classes has grown increasingly polarized, Ms. Reinking and Dover CARES seem intent on conveying a centrist message to voters. Her group supports allowing discussion of intelligent design—in social studies, comparative religion, or similar classes, not as a biology lesson.

They explain their stance this way: Intelligent design is not credible science; teaching it in science class would violate the constitutional separation of church and state. Talking to students about it in nonscience classes, on the other hand, allows teachers to discuss the concept broadly, with less fear of a lawsuit and less worry about whether it is a legitimate topic.

“If you put it in a class where people can talk about all religions, I’m a perfectly happy woman,” Ms. Reinking said.

Dover CARES members also let it be known that they are Christians who don’t regard evolution and religion as mutually exclusive. Their spokesman, Warren M. Eshbach, is a retired pastor in the Church of the Brethren. “I don’t believe that science is antithetical to faith,” he said recently, sitting outside his farmhouse, “nor faith antithetical to science.”

But to win in November, Dover CARES will need the backing of a different flock of the faithful: Republicans. Democratic Sen. John Kerry won Pennsylvania in the 2004 presidential election, but President Bush soundly defeated him in York County, which includes Dover.

Alluding to his group’s mix of Republicans and Democrats, Mr. Eshbach said: “We’re a bipartisan ticket.”


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