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Web Extra Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Victory for evolution in Dover

A Pennsylvania judge ruled today that the Dover Area School District's science curriculum, which required the presentation of intelligent design (ID) — the belief that the complexity of life is evidence that a superior intellect must have designed it — as an alternative to evolution, is unconstitutional.

The Kitzmiller v. Dover trial began Sept. 26, after parents sued the school district, which had required teachers to read a statement about ID prior to discussions of evolution in high school biology classes (see Geotimes online, Web Extra, Oct.21, 2005). Closing arguments wrapped up the case about six weeks later, and now, after more than a month spent reviewing the case, John E. Jones III, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court in Harrisburg, Pa., appointed by President Bush, announced a decision today.

To preserve the separation of church and state, Dover Area School District teachers may not "disparage the scientific theory of evolution" and also may not "refer to a religious, alternative theory known as ID," Jones wrote in his decision. "We find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the court takes no position, ID is not science."

Thus, this first federal case to challenge ID comes as a victory for the plaintiffs, who were supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). "This is a home-run, grand-slam kind of decision," says Nick Matzke of NCSE, who says that he worked full-time to provide the plaintiffs' lawyers with the history of creationism and scientific information about evolution.

Matzke says that Jones seems to have found the plaintiffs' argument convincing that ID is simply a new label for creationism. In his statement, Jones specifically discussed the district's use of the reference book Of Pandas and People, of which 50 copies were donated to the district in October 2004 (see Geotimes online, Web Extra, Nov. 12, 2004). During the hearing, Jones discovered that soon after the Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that creation science could not be taught in public schools, all occurrences of the word "creationism" in the Pandas book were replaced with "intelligent design." He also said that the school board — the defendants — lied "to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy."

John West of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based center that promotes ID, announced in a press release today that although Jones found that the Dover Board "acted from religious motives," he went too far in offering his own views of science, religion and evolution. "Anyone who thinks a court ruling is going to kill off interest in intelligent design is living in another world," West said in the press release.

NCSE's Matzke says that he is interested to see what actions the Discovery Institute takes over the next year. Dover schools may no longer allow the teaching of ID, but Matzke thinks that creationists may continue to promote their ideas under new names. "As long as there's a large number of religious people who take that [creationist] view," Matzke says, "evolution is going to remain controversial in this society." Still, Wesley Elsberry, also of NCSE, says that school boards across the nation will likely look to this case as a "precedence case," and will not view ID with favor.

Kathryn Hansen

Links:
"Evolution battles continue," Geotimes online, Web Extra, Oct. 21, 2005
"More challenges to evolution," Geotimes online, Web Extra, Nov. 12, 2004
National Center for Science Education
Discovery Institute

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