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Trial concludes: Fed. judge now weighing Pennsylvania Intelligent Design case

HARRISBURG, Pa. (BP)-–Prohibiting students from learning about Intelligent Design would cheapen their educational experience, a lawyer for the Dover Area School Board said in closing arguments at the conclusion of the first federal court case testing the constitutionality of the concept in public education.

Patrick Gillen, a lawyer with the Thomas More Law Center of Ann Arbor, Mich., which is defending the Pennsylvania district, maintained that despite the widely held acceptance of evolution as fact in the scientific community, Intelligent Design is based on irrefutable empirical evidence. Schools have a constitutional right to offer students alternative theories on questions about the designs of humanity, Gillen told federal Judge John E. Jones III.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit contended that the Pennsylvania school district has no right to read a statement to ninth-grade biology students which emphasizes that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is “not a fact” and “Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.” They argue that the four-paragraph statement approved by the school board in October 2004 is a veiled attempt to teach religion in public school.

Eleven parents, in suing the district, have been represented, pro bono, by the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Separation of Church and State and a Philadelphia law firm.

Jones, in reaching his verdict in Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District, will digest six weeks of testimony on complicated scientific material such as bacterial flagellum, blood clots and fossil formations. He has stated his intention to rule on the case by January, at the latest.

Both sides have said they will appeal if they lose, with the distinct possibility that the case may end up at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Intelligent Design posits that human life is so complex that it must have been designed by a higher intelligence but does not name a designer. When the Dover school board decided that students must be told about the existence of Intelligent Design along with other theories, some science teachers refused to implement the policy.

“The plaintiffs failed to prove that the predominant purpose of the curriculum change is to advance religion,” Gillen said in his summation. Just because some of the board members who supported Intelligent Design had religious beliefs does not imply a religious belief inherent in Intelligent Design, he added.

Gillen emphasized that the new policy does not discourage the teaching of evolution, which students are required to learn by state law. It only sought a modest change that would expose them to alternative information.

“Obviously, [the plaintiffs] are looking at the 1987 case of Edwards v. Aguilar, where the court in that case did look at the motivation of the primary legislative sponsors of the bill,” Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel at the Thomas More Law Center, told Baptist Press Nov. 8. “They are looking at that case, saying that ‘if we can show the religious motivation, then we’ll be able to destroy Intelligent Design just based on the motivations of the school board members.’”

The York Daily Record/Sunday News reported last year that one school board member made the following statement during a Dover school board meeting when the science curriculum was discussed: “Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?” The plaintiffs contend this statement and others attributed to school board members indicate that they were motivated to change the policy by their religious beliefs.

“Its essential religious nature does not change whether it is called ‘creation science’ or ‘intelligent design’ or ‘sudden emergence theory,’” Eric Rothschild, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, declared in his closing arguments. Rothschild had contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and offered the assistance of his Philadelphia law firm, Pepper Hamilton, when he heard about the dispute in October 2004. He is a member of the legal advisory committee for the National Center for Science and Education, an organization that supports the teaching of evolution in the classroom.

“The board imposed its religious views on the Dover community and commandeered the religious education of children and the Constitution,” Rothschild charged.

Thompson, however, whose organization’s stated mission is “to protect Christians and their religious beliefs in the public square,” disagreed.

“Those comments by one board member cannot be attributable to other board members who did make religious statements, Thompson told Baptist Press. “In fact, one of the board members is a Quaker and she testified that evolution does not have any impact on her religious beliefs. You also had individuals who believed in creationism who voted against the new policy. This goes to the point we are making … that it is inappropriate, we believe, to merely look at motivation of board members. What they should be looking at is the policy, not the motivation of those who formed that policy.

“In this case, the purpose of the policy was merely to make students aware of an alternative theory to the theory of evolution,” Thompson said. “The policy also has a clear secular purpose, which holds that students should be made aware that evolution is not a fact: It’s a theory, that there are gaps in that theory and an alternative theory is Intelligent Design.

“I think that anyone who sat through that trial that objectively listened to the testimony of Michael Behe, this microbiology professor out of Lehigh University, and associate professor Scott Minnich” has to have been convinced about the truthfulness of Intelligent Design, Thompson noted.

Minnich was the last witness to take the stand before closing arguments began. He echoed Behe’s earlier testimony that he had discovered scientific evidence of Intelligent Design, including “irreducibly complex” organisms such as the bacterial flagellum. Behe is believed to have originated the term “irreducibly complex,” which describes organisms that would not function if any part of them was removed.

“We infer design when we see parts that appear to be arranged for a purpose,” Minnich testified. Although Intelligent Design can be compatible with some people’s religious views, the opponents of Intelligent Design try to link it with creationism to discredit it, he said.

Both Behe and Minnich are extremely credible in their fields of study, Thompson maintained. Minnich has a doctorate from Princeton University, was awarded a $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and was one of the scientists that the United States sent to Iraq to hunt for signs that the regime had tried to develop weapons of mass destruction.

“Basically, both of these scientists stated that, looking at the empirical data, it is clear that complex biological systems could not have occurred by Darwin’s theory of natural selection acting on random mutations,” Thompson said. “And basically, their argument was they inferred design when they saw parts that appeared to be arranged for a purpose. They specifically mentioned the bacterial flagellum, which has 40 different parts. The flagellum does not have any value to the biological system, to the human body, until all of those parts are together at one time. So Darwin’s theory that these parts slowly developed over billions of years as a slight modification improved the system has no logical bearing on what they see.”

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  • James Patterson