Slate's Jurisprudence: Battle over 'Intelligent Design'

Madeleine Brand speaks with Slate legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick about a court battle in Pennsylvania that tests whether so-called "intelligent design" can be taught alongside evolution in public schools.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In Dover, Pennsylvania, today it's the second day of the trial some people are calling Scopes 2; that's a reference to the famous Scopes Monkey Trial that took place 70 years ago. Now a group of parents is challenging the local school district's decision there to require students to hear a disclaimer before they study evolution. That disclaimer says, in part: `Because Darwin's theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact.' Joining us to discuss the trial is Dahlia Lithwick. She's a legal analyst for the online magazine Slate and for us here at DAY TO DAY.

Hi, Dahlia.

DAHLIA LITHWICK (Slate): Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: Dahlia, this disclaimer is about intelligent design, and it basically tells students that if they want more information on intelligent design, they can go to the library and read a book on it. So what about that has landed this in court?

LITHWICK: Madeleine, the problem here is that intelligent designers don't think of this as philosophy or religion or social studies; they want it to be taught in science class as a scientific alternative to evolution. Their theory is, `Look, there's gaps in Darwin's theory of evolution. There are things that are not explainable. Those things are clearly only explained by the idea that some plan, some larger force, created something having thought it through in advance.' They're careful not to say that that planner is God, although obviously, that's the implication.

And, of course, as soon as you start telling kids that God is the real reason behind science, you're starting to get into the land of the First Amendment, the notion that you're promoting a religious viewpoint in schools. And that's how this landed up in court. When the Dover School Board said this disclaimer has to be taught, essentially they were saying, `We're introducing God into the science curriculum.'

BRAND: And what are the plaintiffs saying?

LITHWICK: The plaintiffs are 11 parents in this case, they've been assisted now by the ACLU and they've brought a suit in federal court saying that, `Look, this intelligent design idea violates the First Amendment's prohibition on government-sponsored religion, particularly in schools.' And they're relying on an 1987 Supreme Court case, Edwards vs. Aguillard, that stated very clearly that you can't force public schools to balance evolution teaching with creationism.

BRAND: This is a local school board issue, but it's receiving national attention. Why?

LITHWICK: Well, because Dover was, we think, the first school board that actually implemented an intelligent design curriculum, that actually said, `This disclaimer has to be read.' And a lot of school boards are interested in this sort of thing. As you know, the creationism wars have never really ramped down, and so a lot of other school boards that are experimenting with this or thinking about are looking to Pennsylvania to see the results. If the Dover School Board is able to persuade the judge that there is a place in the science curriculum for intelligent design, an awful lot of other states and school boards are going to be very interested in following suit.

BRAND: And I imagine if either side loses, they'll take their case to the Supreme Court?

LITHWICK: Well, I think either way, this is a fight that's going to be in the courts for a long time to come. Whatever decision comes up in Pennsylvania will be the first of many. And as there are various courts of appeals that begin to weigh in, this is going to become a very, very live issue in front of the Supreme Court someday.

BRAND: Opinion and analysis from Dahlia Lithwick. She's the legal analyst for the online magazine Slate and a regular guest here on DAY TO DAY.

Thanks a lot, Dahlia.

Ms. LITHWICK: My pleasure, Madeleine.

BRAND: Stay with us DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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