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Decision Expected in Intelligent Design Case

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Decision Expected in Intelligent Design Case

Education

Decision Expected in Intelligent Design Case

Decision Expected in Intelligent Design Case

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A federal judge in Pennsylvania is expected to rule in a case about whether ninth-grade biology students in Dover, Pa., could hear intelligent design mentioned in the classroom. At issue is whether public schools can teach alternatives to evolution.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A federal judge is expected to rule in a case today that has put the city of Dover, Pennsylvania, much in the news. For six weeks, the court has gotten a lesson in the theory of evolution. Now the judge must decide whether public schools can teach an alternative to evolution called intelligent design. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty is here with us, and welcome.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

Thank you.

MONTAGNE: And bring us up to speed on the case.

HAGERTY: Sure, Renee. A little bit more than a year ago, the Dover-area school board voted that a one-minute statement should be read to ninth-grade biology students just as they begin their segment on evolution. The statement said that evolution is a theory and not a fact, that there are gaps in the theory and that there's another explanation for the origins of life which they called intelligent design. Intelligent design is the idea that life is too complex to have evolved randomly and that there really had to be a designer. Now a few weeks later, 11 parents sued saying that intelligent design is not science, and, therefore, it has no place in biology class. And this fall, a federal judge, John Jones III, heard six weeks of testimony, and he's expected to issue his decision this morning.

MONTAGNE: Interesting case to take in actually. I mean, the lawyers essentially argued literally in microscopic detail about the theory of evolution.

HAGERTY: That's right. One person described it as the biology class we all wish we had taken. The Dover-area school board was represented by Thomas More Law Center, which is a conservative Christian law firm, and they presented some scientists to try to poke holes in neo-evolutionary theory and also they tried to show that intelligent design is an explanation, a scientific explanation for how life began. The star witness was Michael Behe, a biologist at Lehigh University. And Behe kept talking about the bacteria flagellum, and that's a kind of bacteria that Behe said is so complex it couldn't possibly have evolved randomly.

But the plaintiffs' lawyers made Behe admit on the stand that, look, if they change the definition of science to teach intelligent design in biology class, they also have to include things like astrology. For their part, the parents and their lawyers wanted to prove that intelligent design is not a science, but they also wanted to show that the school board had religious motivation for wanting to teach it. For example, several people quoted William Buckingham, one of the school board members, during a school board meeting as saying, "Someone died on a cross 2000 years ago. Isn't anyone going to stand up for him?" So the plaintiffs seemed to succeed in showing some religious motivation for the new policy which could be an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, why so much attention is being paid to this case in Dover, Pennsylvania, is that other communities are grappling with these issues. What's at stake here?

HAGERTY: Well, what's at stake is how science is taught, which is why everyone from the National Academy of Sciences to the National Center for Science Education has weighed in on it. This case is really the first time in nearly 20 years that there's been a serious challenge to evolutionary theory that's been presented in a courtroom. The judge, Renee, could rule really narrowly. He could, for example, just look at whether the policy's unconstitutional because it was religiously motivated. But given all the scientific testimony he's been wading through, he may decide to be a little bit more ambitious and decide whether intelligent design is a science or not. If the school board loses, that may be very, very sobering, as you said, for other school boards in other states that are thinking about teaching alternatives to evolution. And if the school board wins, that is going to be huge news. Then the ACLU says they're going to bring another challenge in another state to intelligent design.

MONTAGNE: NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty, thanks very much.

HAGERTY: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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