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War of ideas fought in a small-town courtroom
San Francisco Chronicle


November 07, 2005

HARRISBURG, Pa. - State Route 74 is the main road into and out of Dover borough, a tidy hamlet of 1,800 set in rolling, wooded hills that at this time of year are dressed in the reds and golds of autumn.

It was here, in October 2004, that a school board led by fundamentalist Christians included so-called intelligent design in its biology curriculum, launching the latest federal courtroom battle over the place of religion in the classroom, a warfare of ideas that has roiled America's political waters ever since the Scopes "monkey trial" of 1925, and beyond - way back to the adoption of the First Amendment.

On Tuesday, Dover Township - a larger incorporated area of about 20,000 - will elect a new school board.

At the northern edge of town on Route 74 stands a billboard that represents the differing positions over science and religion, ideology and theology, that have riven Dover. On the north side of the billboard is an appeal from the incumbent board:

"TAXPAYERS. Your School Board Puts Dover Independent of ACLU. VOTE REPUBLICAN." On the other side is an appeal from the opposing camp, Dover Cares: "Quality Education," it proclaims. "Common Sense. Common Cause."

At the trial, which ended Friday after six weeks of testimony, one plaintiff, Julie Smith, told of her daughter coming home from school and saying to her: "Mom, evolution is a lie. What kind of Christian are you?"

Bryan Rehm, a Dover Cares candidate and one of the 11 parents who have sued the board, said simply: "This community is ready for healing."

Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District was the first legal test for intelligent design. At issue, is whether the policy of the board to incorporate intelligent design into its curriculum was motivated by religious or educational principles. If either the purpose, or the effect, of a public school policy is religious, it would violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which the Supreme Court has interpreted to mandate a separation of church and state.

The last time the Supreme Court was asked to decide a similar issue was 1987, when Louisiana schools were requiring creationism to be taught alongside Darwinism. In Edwards vs. Aguillard, the court struck that state law.

Intelligent design supporters maintain that Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, which underpins the position that man is descended from apes, cannot fully explain the origin of complex forms of life; thus, a higher intelligence must have designed them. Opponents of intelligent design say the theory is a means to introduce religion into the classroom and lacks scientific evidence.

The trial, held in Harrisburg, about 20 miles north of Dover, in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, was the first time a court has been asked to decide whether intelligent design can be taught in public schools.

Many consider it the most important challenge to evolutionary science in many years. It attracted international media attention. Paramount Pictures sent a representative to the courtroom. The New Yorker magazine staffed it, as did Harper's Magazine, whose story is being written by Matthew Chapman, who happens to be the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin.

At issue was a four-paragraph statement adopted by the Dover school board, which was read to ninth-grade biology students as they begin to study the theory of evolution and which says:

"Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested ... The Theory is not a fact. Gaps exist in the Theory for which there is no evidence ... Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view ... Students are encouraged to keep an open mind."

The Dover board is defended by the Thomas More Law Center of Michigan, a nonprofit firm founded by two conservative Roman Catholics, whose Web site states: "Our purpose is to be the sword and shield for people of faith ... to defend and protect Christians and their religious beliefs in the public square."

Intelligent design is science, defendants say, because the "irreducible complexity" of some aspects of the natural world cannot be accounted for otherwise.

The plaintiffs, whose attorneys include Witold J. Walczak, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, argued that intelligent design is creationism in pseudoscientific garb. They pointed to what has become known as the "wedge document," a memo prepared by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that has been at the forefront of attacking Darwinism for promoting atheism and destroying cultural and moral values.

Both sides agree that Judge Jones' decision will have far-reaching implications. "This is the World Series and Oscars and Nobel Prize of the evolution biz all wrapped into one," said Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the Oakland-based National Center for Science Education, who travels the country defending evolution and who played a crucial role in assembling what she calls "a dream team" of expert witnesses for the plaintiffs.

"The results will be extremely significant for American public schools," Scott said. "If the judge rules for the district, I think this will give a green light to school districts across the country that would like to introduce some form of creationism in the classroom."


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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