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Pa. school district defends intelligent design policy

HARRISBURG, Pa. (BP)–School officials from Dover, Pa., have begun defending in court their decision to teach ninth-grade students about the controversy surrounding evolution by mentioning the hot-button issue of Intelligent Design.

Opponents of the policy have charged that the school board is using the theory to introduce religion in the classroom, but the school district, which is represented by the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Thomas More Law Center, says the curriculum change is not rooted in religion.

The controversy has divided the board and community and drawn national attention to the small eastern Pennsylvania town of Dover, located just outside York. More than 40 reporters descended on the federal courthouse in Harrisburg, where the trial began Sept. 26.

The dispute erupted after the Dover Area School District Board voted 6-3 in October 2004 to introduce its students to Intelligent Design, which holds that the universe and many living things are so complex they must have been created by an intelligent, higher being.

Two months later, 11 parents joined with the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State to file a federal lawsuit against the school district. The suit claims that the school board had religious motives in voting for the Intelligent Design policy.

The new policy made Dover the first school district in the nation to explicitly mention Intelligent Design as an alternative theory to evolution. School science instructors are required to read a four-paragraph statement to ninth-grade students when they begin studying the unit on evolution.

“Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s Theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to Intelligent Design. Note: Origins of life will not be taught,” the changes to the biology curriculum read in part.

The board also requires that students be told Darwin’s theory is “not a fact,” and that Intelligent Design is “an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.”

The policy gives Dover students the opportunity to discuss the theories on day six of a 19-day section of biology entitled, “The Study of Life,” the York Daily Record reported.

“During this 90-minute period, students will discuss Darwin’s Origins of Species and its flaws,” the Daily Record said. “The discussion will also be opened up to talk about competing theories, specifically ‘Intelligent Design.’ Supporting that discussion will be the book, ‘Of Pandas and People,’ published by the Foundation for Thought and Ethics.”

While a majority of the school board initially supported the change, within a month of its vote four board members resigned in protest. Another board member quit two weeks later. When some teachers balked at reading the statement on Intelligent Design to their classes, the job fell to school administrators.

On the first day of the trial, Brown University professor Kenneth R. Miller called the Intelligent Design statement adopted by the district “terribly dangerous,” according to The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Miller teaches biology and authored a textbook on the subject. He testified during the non-jury trial that the policy was based on flawed information and was misleading to students.

School board member Alan Bonsell defended the curriculum change, telling a reporter that reading the statement on Intelligent Design to students for discussion was not the same as teaching them religious theory.

John West, associate director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, said in a statement that his organization “strongly objects to the ACLU’s Orwellian efforts to shut down classroom discussions of intelligent design through government-imposed censorship.”

Tammy Kitzmiller, a parent and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, testified Sept. 27 that by introducing Intelligent Design, school board members were trying to impose their religious views on others.

Former Dover school board member Aralene “Barrie” Callahan told the court that Intelligent Design is “clearly religious.” Callahan, The Patriot-News said, testified that Bonsell, “while at a district-sponsored retreat in March 2003, said he ‘did not believe in evolution’ and that if evolution needs to be part of the science curriculum, it should be balanced out ‘50-50’ with lessons on creationism.”

But board attorney Patrick Gillen was able to get Callahan to admit on cross-examination that there were no votes taken during the retreat and it was not an official board meeting.

Michigan State University philosophy of science professor Robert Pennock testified that there are those who believe the Earth’s geology was formed by a flood lasting 40 days and 40 nights, which he said is contradictory to modern science. Intelligent Design is a strategy to take the disparate views of different types of creationists and “unite them against a common enemy,” he said.

The trial was interrupted briefly over two freelance reporters’ refusal to testify about their past school board coverage. Before the first week of the trial was over, however, Heidi Bernhard-Bubb, a reporter for The Dispatch, and Joseph Maldonado, who writes for the Daily Record, agreed to give limited testimony.

The Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture maintains that “some features of the natural world are best explained as the products of an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process such as natural selection.”

The New York Times asserted in a series beginning Aug. 21 that a “scattered group of scholars” make up the core of Discovery Institute. The intellectuals have propelled “a fringe academic movement onto the front pages,” the paper said, noting that President Bush “embraced the institute’s talking points” in early August when he said students should be exposed to more views on man’s origin than just evolution.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., addressed the controversy during a National Public Radio online forum on evolution and religious faith in August.

“Evolutionary theory stands at the base of moral relativism and the rejection of traditional morality,” Mohler said.

“Debates over education, abortion, environmentalism, homosexuality and a host of other issues are really debates about the origin — and thus the meaning — of human life,” Mohler said.

The Book of Genesis makes clear that humans are neither “accidents” nor “mere animals living among other animals, for human beings alone are made in God’s image,” he said.

“The theory of evolution argues that human beings — along with other living creatures — are simply the product of a blind naturalistic process of evolutionary development,” Mohler added. “… By definition, evolution has no room for the concept of the image of God, for evolutionary theory has no room for God at all.”

Judge John E. Jones III will rule on the case after the trial, which is scheduled to continue more than a month.

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  • James Patterson