‘Intelligent Design’ Goes on Trial in Pa.

By Sean Cavanagh — October 04, 2005 8 min read
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The question of whether “intelligent design” amounts to legitimate science, pseudo-science, or religion masquerading as science is undergoing a potentially historic legal test, as a federal court here considers whether a public school district can require that students be exposed to the controversial concept.

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Eleven parents from the Dover district in south-central Pennsylvania are suing to halt a policy that mandates students be told about intelligent design in a 9th grade biology class alongside the theory of evolution.

The case stems from the Dover school board’s decision a year ago this month to revise the district’s science curriculum by requiring that students be made aware of “gaps/problems” in the theory of evolution and be introduced to intelligent design. That concept posits that the development of living things, including humans, shows signs of having been directed by an unnamed master architect, rather than generated by an undirected process of evolution through natural selection and random mutation.

New Legal Territory

Courts have repeatedly rejected attempts to teach creationism—a biblically based belief that God created all living things—in public school science classes, as well as efforts to give that view equal time with evolution. But legal experts say the courts have yet to weigh in on whether requiring inclusion of intelligent design is constitutionally permissible. Thus, they predict that the Pennsylvania case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, is likely to have an impact on future policies adopted by public schools nationwide.

About a month after making that change to the curriculum, district administrators announced that a four-paragraph statement would be read to biology students describing evolution as “not a fact” and referring to intelligent design. The statement also points students to a pro-intelligent-design book, Of Pandas and People, 60 copies of which were donated anonymously to the 3,600-student district. Students were allowed to opt out of hearing the statement.

From the trial’s opening day Sept. 26, lawyers for the plaintiffs made it clear they hope to prove that the Dover board approved the policy citing intelligent design as a backhanded way of incorporating religion into science class, while also denigrating the theory of evolution. They also seek to show that despite the claims of its backers, intelligent design is not valid science, because it is not testable by the strict rules of that discipline.

“Intelligent design is not science in its infancy,” Eric Rothschild, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, declared in his opening statement. “It is not science at all.”

The parents, all of whom have children in the district, are joined in the lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Dover school board members are represented by the Thomas More Law Center, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based organization that provides legal services on issues of religious freedom. In their arguments and questioning of witnesses, the defense team has depicted intelligent design as scientifically valid.

In his opening statement, defense lawyer Patrick T. Gillen suggested that the parents were exaggerating the effect of the school board’s policy. He repeatedly referred to the district’s actions as “modest” and fair.

“This case is about freedom in education,” Mr. Gillen told the court, “not a religious agenda.”

‘Irreducible Complexity’

In seeking to dismiss intelligent design as science, the plaintiffs called Kenneth R. Miller, a prominent biology professor and high school textbook author from Brown University, as their first witness. In nearly a day and a half of detailed and often colorful testimony, he flatly rejected the notion that intelligent design is science and said that its core principles have been disproved by scientific research.

One oft-discussed principle of intelligent design Mr. Miller cited is “irreducible complexity.” That argument holds that some systems of living things are composed of several parts in such a way that the removal of any of them prevents the system from functioning. The slight, gradual modifications of evolution could not have produced such a system that relies on so many interdependent working parts, some advocates of intelligent design say. It is more likely, they argue, that those complex systems were designed.

Yet Mr. Miller offered specific examples, such as blood-clotting and immune systems, in which he said the irreducible-complexity argument crumbles. He also scoffed at many of the arguments made in Of Pandas and People, picking them apart passage by passage. The book’s treatment of biology is “inaccurate and sometimes downright false,” he contended.

Evolution is the theory, advanced most famously by Charles Darwin and supported by the vast majority of scientists, that living things share common ancestors and that species evolve through descent with modification. When the Dover officials point to “gaps” in that theory, they distort reality, Mr. Miller testified.

There are unexplained facets of many different scientific theories, he said, and scientists continually strive to address them. Despite board members’ claims that their intelligent-design policies promote scientific inquiry, Dover’s four-paragraph statement singles out only one scientific theory as weak, Mr. Miller noted.

“It basically tells students … ‘By the way, of all the things you study, we want to warn you about just one thing, and that one thing is evolution,’ ” Mr. Miller said.

Lawyers for the defense countered that Mr. Miller was downplaying important lingering questions about evolutionary theory. Richard Thompson, a defense lawyer and the president of the Thomas More Law Center, said that the well-known Lehigh University biochemistry professor Michael J. Behe would be called to challenge many of Mr. Miller’s statements, when the defense begins its case later this month. The two scholars are often pitted against each other in public forums and in print on the issue of intelligent design.

“Every point that Ken Miller made will be challenged by an equally competent scientist,” Mr. Thompson said in an interview.

Mr. Miller peppered his testimony with references to such varied subjects as the Boston Red Sox. His anecdotes occasionally drew chuckles from both legal teams’ primary audience: U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, who is overseeing the nonjury trial. A native of northeastern Pennsylvania, the jurist was appointed to the federal bench by President Bush in 2002 and confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate.

Religious Bias?

Reporters from about 50 news organizations, including ones in Italy and the United Kingdom, have descended on the ninth-story courtroom in the federal building in Harrisburg, the state capital.

The broad interest in the Dover case is justified, said Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, Calif., organization that opposes the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in science classes. Ms. Scott, in an interview outside the courtroom, described the case as “Scopes III,” an allusion to the celebrated 1925 “monkey trial” of Tennessee high school teacher John T. Scopes.

She sees a second landmark case in McLean v. Arkansas State Board of Education, in which a federal court in 1982 rejected requirements to balance evolution with creationism. Ms. Scott believes the Dover case is the third of those vital legal battles, because it is the first time that the constitutionality of teaching intelligent design in science class is being tested.

Other observers also point to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1987 decision striking down a Louisiana law that imposed a requirement similar to the one in Arkansas.

The plaintiffs contend that Dover’s school board turned to intelligent design in 2004 as a disingenuous way of inserting Christian beliefs into science class. In their testimony during the trial’s first week, the parents described a series of increasingly rancorous public meetings in which board members allegedly spoke unreservedly about their Christian beliefs and their skepticism toward evolution.

One plaintiff, Bryan Rehm, testified that board member William Buckingham, who has since resigned, described a biology textbook being considered for use in the district as “laced with Darwinism.”

In court documents, the plaintiffs maintain that Mr. Buckingham, at another public meeting, also made a reference to Jesus’ crucifixion: “Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross,” the then-board member allegedly said. “Can’t someone take a stand for him?”

Plaintiff Aralene D. Callahan, a former board member, testified that another member, Alan Bonsell, talked at a private board retreat about the need for evolution and creationism to be taught on a “fifty-fifty” basis in science class. Mr. Rehm, a former science teacher at Dover High School, also testified that at a meeting with school officials, Mr. Bonsell voiced concerns about teachers’ presenting students with a “monkeys to man” argument.

Mr. Rehm is a candidate for the district school board in an election being held next month. He and at least seven other political hopefuls are running on the platform that discussion of intelligent design should be allowed only in the district’s social studies classes. At least seven of the incumbents favor the district’s intelligent-design stance. (“Dover, Pa., Board Race Takes Intelligent Design to Voters,” June 15, 2005.)

A Different Picture

Outside the Harrisburg courtroom, Mr. Bonsell described much of the plaintiffs’ testimony as “inaccurate” and predicted that a different picture would emerge when the defense presents its witnesses.

“This is their side of the story,” he said.

“When it all comes out, it’ll be clear this is not religious, it’s educational,” Mr. Bonsell asserted.

Dover officials, he noted, are not requiring that intelligent design actually be taught in the classroom.

“This is a one-minute statement,” the board member said. “That’s it.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as ‘Intelligent Design’ Goes on Trial in Pa.


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