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Intelligent Design supporters lose in Pa. school board election

HARRISBURG, Pa. (BP)–Supporters of a Pennsylvania school district’s policy to make high school science students aware of Intelligent Design say they will not be dissuaded by a school board election that swept candidates into office who ran on a platform opposed to the policy.

All eight seats on the nine-member Dover Area School Board that were up for election Nov. 8 were narrowly won by candidates affiliated with the Citizens Actively Reviewing Educational Strategies (CARES). The organization’s platform calls for removing Intelligent Design from the district’s science curriculum.

The school district is a defendant in a federal trial over its policy to inform ninth-grade science students about the existence of Intelligent Design. Testimony in the case ended in early November. U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III is expected to issue a ruling by early January.

One of the winners in the board election, Bryan Rehm, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the school district. Last year he and 10 other parents, facilitated by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, sued the district. The plaintiffs alleged that exposing the students to Intelligent Design was putting religion in the classroom.

Intelligent Design holds that living organisms are so complex they had to have been constructed by a higher, intelligent designer. The designer is not identified. Lawyers and scientific witnesses for the district argued throughout the six-week trial that there is irrefutable, empirical evidence of Intelligent Design.

Unofficial election results showed that just 288 votes separated the first- and last-place finishers among all 16 candidates, with the top eight vote-getters garnering seats on the board. One of the eight incumbents unseated, David Napieskie, for example, was ousted by just 26 votes.

The issue has divided the small community of Dover, located just outside York. Supporters of the district’s Intelligent Design policy say CARES teamed up with the teachers union, ACLU and other opponents of the policy in an intense campaign to defeat the incumbent board candidates. The ousted board members met informally on Wednesday night to discuss how to proceed after the election, but declined to reveal what was discussed in the meeting.

“When the other side had the backing of the ACLU and the teachers union,” a difficult battle was at hand, said Martha Cashman, whose husband James lost his board seat by just a few votes. “They promised to give the teachers raises. We really needed more community support. You needed a lot more grassroots action in order for us to stop them.”

Four of the seats won were for four-year terms. The other four seats were for two years. A celebration for the winners was held at the home of victorious CARES candidate Phil Herman, who edged out Napierskie to complete former board member Bill Buckingham’s two-year term. Buckingham was one of the primary catalysts of the Intelligent Design policy and a central figure in the trial. Jubilant CARES members wearing red and white T-shirts, cheered, shed tears, prayed and hugged each other, according to the York Dispatch.

“That’s what they did,” Cashman said. “They got the grassroots and they were knocking on doors every day and pulling off rallies and everything. It was a tough election.” Because of a problem with balloting in one precinct, which could impact the outcome of James Cashman’s candidacy, election officials were discussing whether to review parts of the voting.

Officials were puzzled by the results of a voting machine at Friendship Community Church, which recorded the vote for Cashman at 001. Cashman told the York Dispatch that other incumbents who supported the school district’s Intelligent Design policy received about 100 votes each. In the battle for the four-year seats, Cashman lost to fourth-place finisher Rehm by 99 votes. The malfunction could deny Intelligent Design proponents a minority voice on the board.

Opponents of the Intelligent Design policy say the election is a repudiation of the district’s policy. They contend that, if anywhere, the concept should be taught only in non-mandatory or religion courses, where students would have the option of whether to study it.

“My kids believe in God. I believe in God,” Jill Reiter, whose two children attend Dover High School, told the AP. “But I don’t think it belongs in the science curriculum the way the school district is pressing it. Put it in an elective class where those students who want to learn about it or get deeper involved can choose to take that class.”

That suggestion would not sit well with one Dover resident, who does not understand what all the fuss is about.

“This policy is so mild in the way it’s written that it seems hardly worth commenting on,” said Merrill A. Cohen, a local physician. “The hysteria and the controversy that this policy has generated are totally out of proportion to what it deserves. In reality, the policy says almost nothing. Evolution will still be taught and religion is explicitly not to be introduced. Intelligent Design is not going to be taught, it is merely to be made available as an option.

“A book will be available but only as a resource if a student wishes to look at it,” Cohen noted. “This book is not required reading. Are we suddenly practicing the censorship of books? If there is anything that might be a point of contention, it is that the policy calls for the problems associated with a controversial scientific theory to be discussed in class. Isn’t that what we do in the Western world with all of our ideas? What are their pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses? We should want to teach our students to be able to evaluate ideas, especially in science class.

“To refuse to allow the problems associated with an idea or a theory to be mentioned is essentially to present that theory as dogma,” Cohen said. “Why would we want to do that? Evolution is controversial in America. The No Child Left Behind Act of Congress advises that our public schools teach the controversy. I see our current Dover school board as being up to date in its educational requirements.”

Martha Cashman said proponents of Intelligent Design would wait for Judge Jones’ ruling before deciding their next move. The school district was represented at the trial by the Thomas More Center, which had promised to appeal if a ruling goes against the district. But with a new school board that opposes the current policy taking over in January, it’s unclear whether an appeal by the district would be undertaken.

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  • James Patterson