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ACLU & AU sue school board over ‘intelligent design’

DOVER, Pa. (BP)–A federal lawsuit filed Dec. 14 contends that “intelligent design,” if presented in public school science classes, will violate students’ religious liberty by promoting particular religious beliefs under the guise of science education.

The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in behalf of 11 parents, challenges a Pennsylvania school board’s decision requiring biology teachers to present intelligent design as an alternative to the theory of evolution.

Intelligent design is a theory arguing that some features of the natural world are best explained as the products of an intelligent cause rather than naturalistic evolution.

The ACLU-AU lawsuit argues that intelligent design is a religious argument that falls outside the realm of science. Pennsylvania’s Dover Area School Board is the first school district in the United States to require the teaching of intelligent design.

“Teaching students about religion’s role in world history and culture is proper, but disguising a particular religious belief as science is not,” asserted ACLU of Pennsylvania legal director Witold Walczak in a news release. “Intelligent design is a Trojan Horse for bringing religious creationism back into public school science classes.”

The contested policy, adopted in October by the school board in Dover, 25 miles south of the state capital of Harrisburg, requires ninth-grade biology teachers to read a statement to their classes stating that Darwin’s theory of evolution contains “gaps … for which there is no evidence.”

“Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered,” the statement says. “The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence.

“… Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.”

The ACLU-AU lawsuit alleges that teaching students about “gaps” in the theory of evolution without presenting the weaknesses of intelligent design may lead students to adopt the religious beliefs advocated by intelligent design.

“Public schools are not Sunday schools, and we must resist any efforts to make them so,” said Barry W. Lynn, director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, according to the ACLU news release. “There is an evolving attack under way on sound science education, and the school board’s action in Dover is part of that misguided crusade.”

Brian Fahling, senior trial attorney with the American Family Association’s Center for Law and Policy, told Baptist Press that the school district’s mandate for teaching intelligent design likely will be struck down in court, although it is an admirable effort toward achieving balanced teaching about the origins of the universe.

“I’m concerned that mandating the teaching of intelligent design is attempting to bite off more than we ought to at this point,” Fahling said. “… I think it’s a good idea to teach intelligent design. But I fear courts will view this as a hidden religious agenda. While I’m hoping this is a good step, my own judgment is that it is not going to be a happy result.”

The most effective way to introduce intelligent design into public school curricula would be to present the scientific basis for the theory in a public forum and subsequently develop a curriculum to be introduced gradually in classrooms, Fahling said.

“Evolution that pervades the classroom is stifling,” Fahling said. “It needs to have a legitimate competitor, and intelligent design is a legitimate competitor.”

The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization that promotes intelligent design, called the Dover school board “misguided” and advised that the policy should be withdrawn and rewritten.

“While the Dover board is to be commended for trying to teach Darwinian theory in a more open-minded manner, this is the wrong way to go about it,” said John G. West, associate director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. “Dover’s current policy has a number of problems, not the least of which is its lack of clarity. At one point, it appears to both mandate as well as prohibit the teaching of the scientific theory of intelligent design. The policy’s incoherence raises serious problems from the standpoint of constitutional law.”

West urged school boards to adopt policies permitting the teaching of intelligent design but not requiring it.

“Although we think discussion of intelligent design should not be prohibited, we don’t think intelligent design should be required in public schools,” he said. “What should be required is full disclosure of the scientific evidence for and against Darwin’s theory.”