Intelligent Design

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Judge rules against ‘intelligent design’

‘Religious alternative’ to evolution barred from public-school science classes

Dec. 20: A federal judge dealt a harsh blow to a Pennsylvania school board's efforts to offer “intelligent design” in biology class. NBC’s Robert Bazell reports.

Plaintiffs Tammy Kitzmiller and Christy Rehm express their happiness during a news conference on the intelligent-design court ruling in Harrisburg, Pa. Both women have children in the Dover Area School District.

Of 64,448 votes, oat 8:50 pm Dec 20, 2005, the Question was Do you agree with the judge's ruling in the Pennsylvania intelligent design case? 66% said yes. 34% said no.


In one of the biggest courtroom clashes between faith and evolution since the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, a federal judge barred a Pennsylvania public school district Tuesday from teaching “intelligent design” in biology class, saying the concept is creationism in disguise.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones delivered a stinging attack on the Dover Area School Board, saying its first-in-the-nation decision in October 2004 to insert intelligent design into the science curriculum violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

The ruling was a major setback to the intelligent design movement, which is also waging battles in Georgia and Kansas. Intelligent design holds that living organisms are so complex that they must have been created by some kind of higher force.

Jones decried the “breathtaking inanity” of the Dover policy and accused several board members of lying to conceal their true motive, which he said was to promote religion.

A six-week trial over the issue yielded “overwhelming evidence” establishing that intelligent design “is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory,” said Jones, a Republican and a churchgoer appointed to the federal bench three years ago.

The school system said it will probably not appeal the ruling, because the members who backed intelligent design were ousted in November’s elections and replaced with a new slate opposed to the policy.

During the trial, the board argued that it was trying improve science education by exposing students to alternatives to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection.

The policy required students to hear a statement about intelligent design before ninth-grade lessons on evolution. The statement said Darwin’s theory is “not a fact” and has inexplicable “gaps.” It referred students to an intelligent-design textbook, “Of Pandas and People.”

But the judge said: “We find that the secular purposes claimed by the board amount to a pretext for the board’s real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom.”

The disclaimer, he said, "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 to seek out religious instruction elsewhere."

In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states cannot require public schools to balance evolution lessons by teaching creationism.

Eric Rothschild, an attorney for the families who challenged the policy, called the ruling “a real vindication for the parents who had the courage to stand up and say there was something wrong in their school district.”

Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., which represented the school district and describes its mission as defending the religious freedom of Christians, said: “What this really looks like is an ad hominem attack on scientists who happen to believe in God.”

It was the latest chapter in a debate over the teaching of evolution dating back to the Scopes trial, in which Tennessee biology teacher John T. Scopes was fined $100 for violating a state law against teaching evolution.

Earlier this month, a federal appeals court in Georgia heard arguments over whether a suburban Atlanta school district had the right to put stickers on biology textbooks describing evolution as a theory, not fact. A federal judge last January ordered the stickers removed.

In November, state education officials in Kansas adopted new classroom science standards that call the theory of evolution into question.

President Bush also weighed in on the issue of intelligent design recently, saying schools should present the concept when teaching about the origins of life.

‘ID is not science’

In his ruling, Jones said that while intelligent design, or ID, arguments “may be true, a proposition on which the court takes no position, ID is not science.” Among other things, he said intelligent design “violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation”; it relies on “flawed and illogical” arguments; and its attacks on evolution “have been refuted by the scientific community.”

“The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources,” he wrote.

Jones wrote that he wasn’t saying the intelligent design concept shouldn’t be studied and discussed, saying its advocates “have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors.”

But, he wrote, “our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.”

The judge also said: “It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.”

Former school board member William Buckingham, who advanced the policy, said from his new home in Mount Airy, N.C., that he still feels the board did the right thing.

‘We were robbed’

“I’m still waiting for a judge or anyone to show me anywhere in the Constitution where there’s a separation of church and state,” he said. “We didn’t lose; we were robbed.”

The controversy divided Dover and surrounding Dover Township, a rural area of nearly 20,000 residents about 20 miles south of Harrisburg. It galvanized voters to oust eight school board members who supported the policy in the Nov. 8 school board election. The ninth board member was not up for re-election.

The new school board president, Bernadette Reinking, said the board intends to remove intelligent design from the science curriculum and place it in an elective social studies class.

“As far as I can tell you, there is no intent to appeal,” she said.

The old board's actions may still have an impact, however. Jones also ruled that the school board would have to pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees, which are not insignificant. Plaintiffs' attorney Rothschild said compensation would be sought despite the turnover on the board, but that the cost was still being tallied. “We’ll sort out who we might pursue for this remedy in the days ahead,” he said.

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Mainstream science groups hailed Tuesday's "intelligent-design" ruling as a slam-dunk for evolution. The judge in the case took extra pains to lay out a legal view of science vs. religion, saying he hoped it would head off the "obvious waste of judicial and other resources" on yet another court challenge.

But even Darwin's staunchest defenders acknowledge that the legal battle over intelligent design, or ID, is shifting to new grounds. ID's proponents are already reshaping their arguments as a case of academic freedom vs. an overreaching "activist federal judge."

"Let no one think this debate is over. If there's any lesson to be learned, it's that this debate is never over," said Casey Luskin, an attorney at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which came in for criticism in the ruling from U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III.

Jones' ruling was a sweeping indictment of intelligent design, the notion that life on Earth was produced by an unnamed intelligent cause. The defenders of evolutionary theory gushed over the opinion during a celebratory news conference in Harrisburg, Pa.

"This decision is a major victory for science, and a major victory for science education," Eugenie Scott, executive director of the California-based National Center for Science Education, told reporters.

The judge could have issued a much narrower opinion, finding merely that the Dover Area School Board in Pennsylvania acted with a religious purpose when it required biology teachers to refer to intelligent design.

While that was indeed part of the ruling, much more of the 139-page opinion was devoted to the proposition that intelligent design was repackaged creationism rather than science. At times, Jones sounded more like a biology professor than a judge — for example, when he countered the view that some biological mechanisms were irreducibly complex by referring to "exaptation," the idea that a mechanism that was developed for one purpose could be adapted to another.

Throughout, he rejected the idea that intelligent design should be used to fill in blank spots in current evolutionary theory:

"To be sure, Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions."

‘Activist judge’ anticipates criticism

Jones' efforts rankled intelligent-design proponents at least as much as it pleased Darwin's defenders.

"In my opinion, this decision is unconstitutional," Luskin told in a telephone interview. "The government has no business telling people how they should perceive evolution and religion."

A statement from John West, associate director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, struck a similar tone: "The Dover decision is an attempt by an activist federal judge to stop the spread of a scientific idea and even to prevent criticism of Darwinian evolution through government-imposed censorship rather than open debate, and it won't work."

The judge anticipated such criticism in his opinion:

"Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manisfestly not an activist court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the board's decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources."

Richard Thompson of the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, the "public interest law firm" cited in Jones' opinion, made clear that he didn't consider the debate to be a waste.

"This should be done in the scientific community, debating it out. ... The debate is still going on. It's a new debate," Thompson said on MSNBC-TV.

Future frontiers for the ID debate

The judge's opinion isn't likely to set the terms of the debate in formal terms, due to two factors: It currently serves as judicial precedent only for the federal district of central Pennsylvania; and since Dover's pro-ID school board members were voted out last month, there's virtually no chance of appeal to a higher court.

But the attorneys for the families who brought the suit said school board members across the country would do well to read the opinion closely anyway. "It is our hope that today's decision will slow other school districts who might be thinking about moving forward" with ID-friendly policies, said Witold Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Pennsylvania.

Eric Rothschild, another member of the plaintiffs' legal team, noted that through the years, the legal challenges to evolution education have been mounted in the name of creationism, then creation science, then intelligent design. "We expect another change in labels," he said, "whether it's 'sudden appearance,' or this 'teach the controversy' thing."

With the Dover case done, the political spotlight is now likely to shift to Georgia, where a suburban Atlanta school district is challenging a federal ban on textbook stickers questioning evolution; and Kansas, where the state school board recently endorsed ID-friendly curriculum standards.

But new legal frontiers could well open up in the months to come.

Luskin told that the Discovery Institute would prefer to focus in the future on public-school teachers who want to bring up intelligent design, rather than on school districts who want to force intelligent design into the science curriculum. In fact, the institute has tried to distance itself from the Dover case for that reason.

"Discovery's policy has always been that we don't think intelligent design should be mandated. We've always opposed what the Dover school district did," Luskin said. "We do think intelligent design should be preserved as a constitutional right. I don't think this decision is going to stop teachers outside the Central District of Pennsylvania from teaching intelligent design."

In his written statement, West said "the institute strongly supports the freedom of teachers to discuss intelligent design in an objective manner on a voluntary basis."

Looking toward Michigan

One case has already attracted some attention: the case of Michigan's Gull Lake Community Schools, where two teachers are thinking about filing a lawsuit alleging that the district is interfering with their right to refer to intelligent design.

Past judicial opinions have made clear that there are limits to a teacher's free-speech rights in public schools, particularly if the teacher appears to advocate a particular religious view. Scott said Tuesday's court ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover only reinforced those limits.

"I think it would be exceedingly unwise for anyone, given the court record of the Kitzmiller case, to argue something like the Gill Lake position where teachers have a constitutional right to teach bad science to their students," Scott said.

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Science must begin with myths, and with the criticism of myths. - Karl Popper

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