Pa. Court Weighs Creationism in Schools A landmark court case is shaping up in Pennsylvania, as school teachers rebel against being forced to teach creationism in their biology classrooms along with evolution.
NPR logo

Pa. Court Weighs Creationism in Schools

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Pa. Court Weighs Creationism in Schools


Pa. Court Weighs Creationism in Schools

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript



There's a landmark trial going on in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It's been called a contemporary Scopes trial because once again, it pits creationists against biologists, but to be more precise, this time, a group of parents is suing the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board because the school board wants biology teachers to include an alternative to evolution in the science curriculum. Last year, the school board required that the biology curriculum include a statement that, `Evolution is a theory, not a fact,' and to offer intelligent design, what some see as a thinly veiled version of creationism, as an alternative in the classroom. Eleven Dover parents sued the school district, saying the board violated the constitutional separation of church and state. The trial started this week in federal court in Harrisburg, and there's speculation that it may go all the way to the Supreme Court.

Joining me now from the US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania to talk about the first week of the trial is Chris Mooney. He's the Washington, DC, correspondent for Seed magazine and author of the book, "The Republican War on Science."


Mr. CHRIS MOONEY (Seed Magazine): Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: And what's going on in the court today?

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. I just left the courtroom, where John Haught, who's a theologian from Georgetown University, was testifying, and he is testifying on behalf of the plaintiffs, who are suing the Dover board, and he is the theological expert, and he was arguing that intelligent design is essentially religious in nature and traced it back to the natural theology tradition in Christian thought, going back to Thomas Aquinas.

FLATOW: So is that basically the tact this week as the plaintiffs present their case, to show that intelligent design is religion?

Mr. MOONEY: Exactly. They're drawing upon both experts, like Haught, and also experts in science and philosophy of science, and they're also drawing upon fact witnesses, so people from Dover, Pennsylvania, including the parents who are actually suing. They have been testifying as well to establish what actually happened when this policy was enacted, and they've been testifying that the board of education, when it enacted the policy, had pretty clear religious motivations.

FLATOW: And that they were finding a way then to bring this into the classroom.

Mr. MOONEY: Right.

FLATOW: And they're arguing that this violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Mr. MOONEY: That's right. The part of the First Amendment, called the establishment clause, which is often referred to as the separation of church and state, and what the plaintiffs' attorneys have to argue--this is the American Civil Liberties Union, Pepper Hamilton Law Firm, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State--is that the intelligent design policy has either the purpose or the effect of advancing religion, and if that's the case, then it is unconstitutional.

FLATOW: And this is--do you feel that this is a good argument on their side?

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. I actually feel that their argument is really quite strong, that it's fairly easy to fit intelligent design into previous court precedents from the Supreme Court that have already said you can't teach creation science, because creation science is religion, not science. That was a 1987 case out of Louisiana that the Supreme Court decided. All the attorneys for the plaintiffs have to do is make the court apply that precedent to intelligent design, and so they're trying to draw a strong connection between intelligent design and creationism, and it helps them that they have presented evidence suggesting that the Dover board, before it started talking about intelligent design, was talking about creationism.

FLATOW: And they have been presenting that evidence this week.

Mr. MOONEY: Right.

FLATOW: Have plain old residents of Dover been testifying also?

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. There have been members of the community certainly testifying and talking about actually a lot of the religious kind of strife that this has engendered in the community. Actually, that's been some of the most powerful part of the testimony. For example, you had former board members testifying against their former friends on the board who enacted the policy, people who resigned, talking about how actually they had been labeled atheists when they resigned from the board.

FLATOW: So they're painting this that you have to be an atheist, you know, to teach evolution.

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. I mean, I think that that's some of the sentiment that is out there, at least for some people...


Mr. MOONEY: ...who are skeptical of evolution. It's because they think that it leads to atheism. And part of the plaintiffs' case is to argue that, in fact--and you heard this from the theologian, John Haught, today, that evolution is not at all incompatible with religion. They're making that argument very strongly. And, in fact, they had Kenneth Miller of Brown University testifying. He is an evolutionary scientist, but he's also a Christian. He's the author of "Finding Darwin's God."

FLATOW: How is this affecting the kids of Dover? Have you been able to go into Dover itself and take the temperature of the community?

Mr. MOONEY: I have been to Dover several times. I've been talking actually more with parents than...


Mr. MOONEY: ...their actual children. But actually, interestingly, in the testimony, one of the plaintiffs suing the school board, Julie Smith, she testified that her own daughter came home from school and said, you know, `Mom, evolution's a lie. What kind of a Christian are you?' Because apparently her daughter had heard this from other students. And this is why Julie Smith said that she was so upset and that she wanted to sue, was because she wanted to teach her daughter about Christianity as she saw it, and the daughter was coming back and questioning her mother's religious views. So it's actually divided not only friends and other people in the community, but it seems to have created divisions within families.

FLATOW: Have we heard from the people who have testified on--other people on the intelligent design side or is that coming next week?

Mr. MOONEY: Well, they have not been able to make their positive case yet.


Mr. MOONEY: It's in the plaintiffs' court right now, but they are allowed to cross-examine both the expert witnesses that the plaintiffs are bringing forward, as well as the fact witnesses, so the people from the town.

FLATOW: And some of--who might some of those expert witnesses be?

Mr. MOONEY: So we've heard from Kenneth Miller, who is a biologist at Brown University, talking about the science of evolution, defending it and criticizing intelligent design. Then we heard from Robert Pennock, who is a philosopher of science, and he was talking about how science relies on natural explanations and intelligent design is inherently supernatural and, therefore, cannot be part of science. And then we heard from John Haught today, a theologian at Georgetown, talking about intelligent design having religious content. So this is how the plaintiffs are building their case, to say that this is not science, this is religion, and that's why the policy advances religion. That's why it's unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

FLATOW: Is the court getting a lesson in evolution throughout all of this, what science is and what science is not?

Mr. MOONEY: Absolutely. A lot of the testimony has been at a really high level. It's been a great education experience. You know, you think you know a lot about the evolution...


Mr. MOONEY: ...debate, but when you hear it in a national courtroom, it somehow refocuses it and makes it seem much more serious and critical.

FLATOW: Is this a jury trial or is a judge deciding this?

Mr. MOONEY: No, a judge is deciding.

FLATOW: And does he have a history of ruling in any of these cases that you know of?

Mr. MOONEY: No. I don't believe he has any history in really--there haven't been that many...

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. MOONEY: ...evolution cases, I think.

FLATOW: Well, let's compare it to other ones that we've had. I mentioned this as sort of a nouveau Scopes trial. Would you agree with that or are there other cases that are more like it?

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. Well, the Scopes trial is one analogy. I don't now if it's the best analogy. I think that if any evolution trial is a Scopes trial, then, yes. But actually, I think some of the more closely analogous cases are the ones that came later and were decided by the Supreme Court. In the sense that we--those precedents--First Amendment precedents are being applied. And actually, there was a case out of Arkansas called McLean vs. Arkansas in the early '80s that was extremely similar to this one, and it was about the introduction of the creation science into the curriculum rather than intelligent design, but there are a lot of very strong...


Mr. MOONEY: ...parallels there.

FLATOW: Yeah. You know, what I found interesting is a few weeks ago, when we were talking about this upcoming trial, when we had a representative of The Discovery Institute on the program, and I was surprised to hear that they were not backing the Dover school board on this.

Mr. MOONEY: No. Exactly. You know, I've made the analogy--I wrote about this in Seed magazine, and I talked about how Dover is a lot like a village in the early stages of a military campaign that has to be sacrificed because it's tactically too difficult to defend. The leading lights of intelligent design, The Discovery Institute, they are not defending this district, and some of their people are not testifying, and I think that's because--well, you'd have to ask them...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. MOONEY: ...but I speculate that it may be because this is a hard case to defend, because you have so many religious statements from members of the school board, and intelligent design itself--it's pretty easy to show that that has religious content to it. So I think that they'd rather defend a different case.

FLATOW: They'd rather create the controversy in--say there is a controversy and then, you know, their mantra is `teach the controversy.'

Mr. MOONEY: Exactly. And I think that the case they would like to see would not involve a school board actually bringing up intelligent design explicitly, because once you do that, then you have people saying, `Who's the designer? It must be God.' You have theologians that testify to this, etc. But if you just criticize evolution, and that's purely negative, and maybe, they think, it will be harder to show that that's religiously motivated.

FLATOW: Are people talking about this going up to the Supreme Court possibly and the new chief justice, Roberts?

Mr. MOONEY: Sure. Well, it's clearly a possibility. But again, because of what we were just discussing, this may not be the strongest case for the defenders of intelligent design and the critics of evolution today, because it might be too easy to say, `Oh, this just fits all the other creationism cases, and, you know, it's a First Amendment violation.' If it's not their ideal case, then they may not want it to go to the Supreme Court. There's a lot of strategic jostling right here on both sides to figure out what case is best for them, and I think the ACLU and its allies right now think they have a very strong case because they are able to bring, in fact, witnesses to say that the people on the board wanted to introduce creationism and that they made various sorts of religious statements. And then, of course, they have the content of intelligent design. They can examine that and they can say that the designer certainly sounds like God.

FLATOW: Yeah. It's not a martian we're talking about. This is not "2001: Space Odyssey."

Mr. MOONEY: Right.

FLATOW: What other cases might go? We've heard of cases in Kansas. Is that case still alive?

Mr. MOONEY: Well, Kansas has not reached the stage of a lawsuit yet.


Mr. MOONEY: The Kansas Board of Education--this is statewide, right.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. MOONEY: Dover's a locality. The board of education would have to set a final policy at which point someone--the ACLU or someone else defending evolution--would then have to decide to sue. And it hasn't reached that stage yet. Certainly, there is anti-evolutionist activity in Kansas, and it's a very prominent place for anti-evolutionist activity. But there is activity all across the country, and so really, who knows which is going to be the--I just think Dover is the first battle in what is going to be likely a series of legal battles over evolution.

FLATOW: And each side has to pick the case that it wants to take up to the Supreme Court, you think.

Mr. MOONEY: Right. And I think right now, that the ACLU and the evolution defenders like their case.

FLATOW: Any predictions on the outcome of this on your part, listening?

Mr. MOONEY: Well, as that last comment hinted, I am not a lawyer, but if I was going to predict, then I think that it's likely that it won't be that hard for the judge to fit this case into previous cases that ruled that creationism is not allowed.

FLATOW: Has the administration weighed in on this?

Mr. MOONEY: Well, President Bush did endorse the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution in science classes, and that, of course, is exactly what Dover did. What President Bush didn't mention is that if you do this, you're going to get slapped with a lawsuit, which could, A, divide the community and, B, maybe could end up causing hefty legal fees if you lose the lawsuit. So I'm not sure that it was the best advice for a school district.

FLATOW: I'm surprised you could actually wind up having science deciding whether God exists or not here--or scientists...

Mr. MOONEY: Well, scientists don't want to do that.

FLATOW: Right. Well, we have to go, but I want to thank you for taking time to talk with us, and we'll hopefully check in and see how this goes. You're going to be there for the rest of the trial, so...

Mr. MOONEY: As much as I can, yeah.

FLATOW: Well, thank you, Chris Mooney...

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: ...for taking time with us. Chris Mooney is Washington correspondent for Seed magazine and author of the new book "The Republican War on Science." Perhaps we'll have him come on and talk about his book.

We're going to take a short break, and when we come back, we're going to switch gears and go on to something new about conservation, energy conservation. What's the best way to go about doing that? Stay with us. We'll be right back.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.