Pa. Case Weighs Intelligent Design in Schools

A federal trial begins Monday in Harrisburg, Pa., over a Dover school district disclaimer that introduces the idea of "intelligent design" in high school biology classes. It is the first major test of the issue in a federal court.

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Intelligent design faces its first major test in a federal courtroom today in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. At issue, a policy in the town of Dover that tells high school students that evolution is a theory, not a fact. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

It will be another seven years before Beth Eveland's daughter takes ninth-grade biology. But she tries to keep an eye on the Dover School Board. A year ago, she began to notice some things that gave her pause.

Ms. BETH EVELAND: I read some comments in the local newspaper about choosing of a biology textbook for the high school. And I thought, you know, `I better go and just see what's going on.'

HAGERTY: What she saw horrified her. The board suggested a new policy that a school official show up in biology class and read a one-minute statement before students begin studying evolution. The disclaimer states that evolution is a theory, not a fact, that there are gaps in the theory for which there is no evidence and that there is an alternative called intelligent design, which is described in a textbook in the school library. Eveland was there when the school board approved the policy on October 18th.

Mr. EVELAND: My next step, the next morning, was to call the ACLU. I really felt that this was bringing religion into the science classroom and it didn't belong there.

HAGERTY: Parents of seven other students joined her and starting today a federal judge will consider whether intelligent design can even be mentioned in science class. Intelligent design is the idea that life is too complex to have developed through natural selection and random mutation. Now lawyers and scientists will argue the merits of Darwin's theory and whether intelligent design is, as critics allege, creationism in a cheap tuxedo.

Richard Thompson, president of Thomas More Law Center, and an attorney for the Dover School Board, says the comparison with creationism is flat wrong. It has nothing to do with the Bible and Genesis. Beyond that, he says, the ACLU is making a federal case over nothing.

Mr. RICHARD THOMPSON (President, Thomas More Law Center): This is a school board who, under their responsibilities, decided to make a modest change in the curriculum of the ninth-grade biology course and mention intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. We don't think that this violates the Constitution.

HAGERTY: But Vic Walczak, the legal director of the ACLU in Pennsylvania, says there's nothing innocuous about this new policy. Imagine, he says, a ninth-grade science class that has been studying different scientific theories for half the year.

Mr. VIC WALCZAK (Legal Director, ACLU, Pennsylvania): And then all of a sudden they are about to learn about evolution. The assistant superintendent walks in and says, `Warning. Warning. Evolution is a theory, not a fact.'

HAGERTY: Walczak says the board is attacking evolution by invoking a supernatural designer and the US Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional in 1987. Moreover, he says, the school district cannot constitutionally pass a policy whose primary purpose is to promote religion. And Walczak says, here the record is brimming with religion. For example, he says, one board member suggested that creationism be taught. Another board member complained that the curriculum was, quote, "laced with Darwinism."

Mr. WALCZAK: He also said, `2,000 years ago someone died on the cross. Can't someone take a stand for him?' And in light of these statements, it's really difficult to see how school board can steadfastly maintain that this has nothing to do with promoting religion.

HAGERTY: Members of the school board would not comment for this story, but attorney Richard Thompson says such remarks prove nothing. He says the issue is not what the board said but what it did.

Mr. THOMPSON: The Dover School Board only teaches evolution. It didn't prohibit the teaching of evolution. And it prohibits the teaching of creationism or intelligent design.

HAGERTY: Thompson says the board's primary objective was secular. That is to tell students about the controversy over evolution and let them know about the alternatives. And that's good science teaching says David DeWolf, a law professor at Gonzaga Law School. A poll by Pew Research Center found that nearly two-thirds of Americans want creationism to be taught alongside evolution in the public schools.

Professor DAVID DeWOLF (Gonzaga Law School): The public wants an acknowledgement of the existence of competing points of view. And there's a tremendous hunger for this issue to be addressed in a responsible way.

HAGERTY: So a secular purpose or a religious one? That's something the judge will have to sort out, says Ira Lupu, a constitutional law scholar at George Washington University. One thing that will surely come up is the new policy's narrow focus.

Mr. IRA LUPU (Constitutional Law Scholar, George Washington University): Nobody on the school board is asking that there be statements read in chemistry class or in physics class or in history class about doubts about various historical propositions.

HAGERTY: He says the Dover policy singles out evolution for particular scrutiny. The underlying debate, whether intelligent design is science or religion, will occupy most of this trial, but the case will likely be decided not on the merits of intelligent design, but on the motives of the board members who support it.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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