Intelligent Design Proponents Set Back by Dover Case

A federal judge Tuesday prohibited mentions of intelligent design in Dover, Pa., public school biology classes. The case was closely watched by school districts around the country, and the decision is likely to put a damper on other such efforts.

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Like the Scopes trial 80 years ago, the debate over intelligent design in Dover, Pennsylvania, brought national attention to the teaching of evolution in the public schools. And yesterday, a federal judge came down hard on the side of Darwin. The scathing decision is a setback to those seeking to introduce alternatives to evolution into the science curriculum. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

The decision was a home run for the 11 parents who filed the lawsuit and their lawyers. At issue? A one-minute statement read to ninth-grade biology students which said that evolution is a theory, not a fact and that intelligent design is an alternative explanation. That, said Judge John Jones III, was a government endorsement of Christianity and a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory. Intelligent design, he concluded, is merely a repackaging of creationism, and Jones condemned the, quote, "inanity of the school board's policy." He accused board members of selective memory and outright lies and said they displayed, quote, "striking ignorance of what intelligent design is even as they imposed it on students." Stephen Harvey, an attorney for the parents, was delighted.

Mr. STEPHEN HARVEY (Attorney): Judge Jones reaffirms that in this country public servants shall not use their public office to impose their personal religious views on others.

HAGERTY: And he did more than that, said Richard Katskee of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Katskee said Judge Jones sent a warning to all school districts considering introducing intelligent design into the science curriculum.

Mr. RICHARD KATZSKEE (Americans United for Separation of Church and State): The story of Dover in other words is a cautionary tale. School boards and school administrators across the country should read this opinion with genuine care and take it to heart and not just because of a fear that they might be sued. Instead, the opinion reminds them and all of us that religion is an intensely personal decision for parents and for their children.

HAGERTY: Technically, the ruling only binds schools in the middle district of Pennsylvania, and it's unlikely to be appealed. Dover residents recently voted out the school board members who introduced the policy, and the new school board has said it will abide by the judge's ruling. Still, the tremors of this case will be felt nationwide, says Ed Larson, a law professor and author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the Scopes trial. He says the judge clearly intended to make this a definitive ruling that can be applied elsewhere.

Professor ED LARSON: The judge took the time, six weeks, to hear the evidence and then write a comprehensive decision. By looking at all the different aspects of it--the science aspects, the activities of the school board, the various different areas he looked into here--each of those can then be used by school board attorneys around the country to serve as a guide and as a marker.

HAGERTY: Currently, few if any school districts are considering teaching intelligent design, but at least three states teach criticism of evolution and a half a dozen more are considering it. Larson says this ruling, which embraced evolution as a foundation of biology, may embolden people to challenge such policies. Richard Thompson of Thomas More Law Center, who represented the school board, believes Judge Jones was flat wrong, but, he says, this decision will not stop the march of intelligent design.

Mr. RICHARD THOMPSON (Thomas More Law Center): A thousand court opinions cannot make a valid scientific theory invalid or an invalid scientific theory valid. And so this case is going to continue on, and certainly public school system students should be made aware of the controversy that surrounds Darwin's theory of evolution.

HAGERTY: For his part, Judge Jones wrote that intelligent design may well be true, but, he says, it's not science and has no place in biology class. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: School boards and state legislatures across America are considering teaching alternatives to evolution. Follow the state-by-state debate at our Web site, npr.org.

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