Intelligent Design in American Classrooms

Steve Inskeep discusses the current state of intelligent design in American classrooms with Barbara Bradley Hagerty and with Greg Allen, who covered the intelligent design movement in Kansas.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now the same day that Bernadette Reinking's group won control of the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, the Kansas Board of Education made its own decision. The state board there adopted new science standards that encourage teachers and students to question evolution. We're going to go now to NPR's Greg Allen, who's been covering this story.

And, Greg, we've just heard what the new board wants to stop doing in Dover, Pennsylvania. Can you describe what the Kansas Board intends to start doing in Kansas?

GREG ALLEN reporting:

Well, Dover, Pennsylvania, went a little further than Kansas. Here in Kansas what they've done is adopted standards that actually open up the theory of evolution to criticism. They also encourage teachers to discuss with their students such things as gaps in the fossil record, molecular evidence, that they say raises questions about the theory of evolution.

INSKEEP: Well, that's really interesting. When we were talking to Senator Rick Santorum, conservative Republican from Pennsylvania who's expected to have a tough re-election fight, he didn't say he was in favor of intelligent design specifically. He said he wanted to question evolution, the same position you're saying that the Kansas Board took.

ALLEN: Right. And that's a national strategy that supporters of intelligent design--they believe that the first step is to open up evolution to critiquing. They say it's being treated as scientific dogma that's not open to questioning and they want to actually start that process of getting some questions raised about evolution.

INSKEEP: Well, Greg, I want to bring another voice into this discussion. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has been tracking this issue across the country.

And is there any sign of a backlash against intelligent design?

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

Well, at this point, it kind of goes both ways. I think some places are spooked by what has happened in Dover. Earlier this year, I was in Cecil County, Maryland, a very conservative area, and they came right to the brink of suggesting that students read alternative texts that would put evolution into question. They came right to the brink of that and they came back from it because they just didn't want all the hassle.

Other states seem to be holding firm in their desire to challenge evolution. I know in Alabama last week, the school board unanimously voted to keep a disclaimer in the biology textbooks calling evolution controversial and saying that it's not a fact. Other states like Indiana and Michigan are considering the same thing. So what we don't know is whether there's really a push back or not. It's just too early to tell.

INSKEEP: And so we have both a political argument here as well as a legal argument. What's happening in the courts right now?

HAGERTY: Well, there are a couple of cases. One, of course, is in Dover, Pennsylvania, and what that case will really revolve around, I believe, is whether the school board had a religious motivation in putting this statement in the biology class. If the plaintiffs can prove that they had a religious motivation, then what the judge will probably rule is, `Look, this has no place in the classroom because there was a religious motivation.'

There is another case that is heading to the Court of Appeals in Cobb County, Georgia. There was a school board that passed a disclaimer sticker. That was ruled unconstitutional. The judge found that there was religious motivation here and it had no place in the classroom. Ultimately, this is all going to go to the Supreme Court, and what the opponents of intelligent design want to show is that intelligent design is, as they put it, `creationism dressed up in a cheap tuxedo.' They want to show that this is a religious idea and not a scientific one. The reason they want to do that is because in 1987, the US Supreme Court ruled that creationism could not be taught in science class. So if they can make that link, then they get a slam dunk and intelligent design will not be taught in science class. That's what it's really about.

INSKEEP: So this case is not over in Dover, Pennsylvania, which we heard about in the beginning, because there's still a court ruling to come.

Greg Allen, is this case over in Kansas?

ALLEN: The standards are certainly adopted. It'll be a couple of years before they filter down to the classroom. You know, the big test is if they start testing students on these ideas in state assessment tests and that would come even longer down the line. The first test will be next--the election next year for the school board and challengers are already mounting campaigns against four conservative board members who are running. And it wouldn't surprise me if we didn't actually see some outside money coming in to get involved in what might turn out to be a pretty heated political campaign.

INSKEEP: Greg Allen, thanks very much.

ALLEN: Certainly.

INSKEEP: We were also talking to NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty.

Thank you.

HAGERTY: Sure.

INSKEEP: Our correspondents have done a lot of reporting on the debate over intelligent design and you can find a lot of it, including a state-by-state guide to the evolution debate, at npr.org.

This is NPR News.

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