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Federal judge rules against Intelligent Design theory

HARRISBURG, Pa. (BP)–Intelligent Design may not be taught to science students in Pennsylvania public schools because it violates the Constitution’s Establishment Clause prohibiting government endorsement of religion, a federal judge ruled Dec. 20.

The decision by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III dealt a setback to supporters of Intelligent Design, which holds that living organisms are so complex they must have been designed by a higher, but unspecified, intelligence.

Aided by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a former school board member and a teacher at Dover High School were among 11 parents who sued the Dover Area School Board for adopting a policy that required ninth-grade students to listen to a short statement on Intelligent Design. The statement informed the students that there are gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and that there are other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, Intelligent Design.

But Jones ruled that requiring school faculty to read the four-paragraph statement was tantamount to teaching religion in the classroom and ordered the school district to stop the practice.

“In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science,” Jones concluded in a 139-page decision. “We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious antecedents.

“Both defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false,” the judge wrote. “Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.”

The defendants, however, maintained throughout the six-week trial that Intelligent Design deserves exposure in school with other theories on how life begins, such as evolution and the Big Bang theory.

Lehigh University microbiology professor Michael Behe, who testified for the school district during the trial, said there is ample empirical evidence to prove that Intelligent Design is not a religious movement but a “scientific theory that relies on evidence and logical processes.”

“Creationism is 180 degrees different from Intelligent Design,” Behe testified. “Creationism is a theological concept. Intelligent design is a scientific theory that relies on physical, empirical, observable evidence in nature plus logical inferences.”

But Jones rejected that argument. “To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect,” he wrote. “However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.”

In Dover’s school board election in November, eight of the nine school board members were narrowly defeated by candidates who had expressed opposition to the district’s Intelligent Design policy. Voters in one precinct where a machine malfunctioned during the November balloting will recast their votes on Jan. 3. The outcome, which pits incumbent and Intelligent Design policy supporter James Cashman against lawsuit complainant Bryan Rehm, is not expected to impact the new board’s opposition to the district’s ID policy. The majority of new board members have indicated that they do not intend to appeal the judge’s decision.

“The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the board who voted for the ID policy,” Jones wrote in his ruling. “It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID policy.

“With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors,” Jones stated. “Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.

“Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge,” Jones commented in his ruling. “If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy.”

Jones’ comment was an apparent reference to the Thomas More Law Center of Ann Arbor, Mich., which represented the school district. Richard Thompson, the center’s president and chief counsel, could not be reached for comment at press time.

“The breathtaking inanity of the board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop, which has now been fully revealed through this trial,” Jones continued. “The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.”

The controversy began when the Dover board voted 6-3 on Oct. 18, 2004, to make freshman biology classes aware of Intelligent Design by having the following statement read to them:

“The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

“Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

“Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interest in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.

“With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families. As a Standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on Standards-based assessments.”

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement, “This is a tremendous victory for public schools and religious freedom. It means that school board members have no right to impose their personal religious beliefs on students through the school curriculum.”

The case, however, is not likely to quell the controversy over the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools. In Kansas, state education officials have adopted classroom standards that question the theory of evolution, while a federal appeals court in Georgia has heard arguments over whether the Cobb County school district can place evolution disclaimer stickers on biology textbooks.

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  • James Patterson