Judge ponders evolution arguments as intelligent design trial continues

Sunday, November 6, 2005

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- A federal judge is contemplating whether the mandatory teaching of "intelligent design" improperly promotes religion in schools, after the historic evolution trial drew to a close.

Federal Judge John E. Jones III said he wanted to issue a ruling by January, the latest legal chapter in the decades-long debate over the teaching of evolution in public school.

The six-week trial in Pennsylvania featured expert witnesses debating the scientific merits of the intelligent design concept and clashes over whether creationism was discussed in school board meetings months before the curriculum changed in 2004.

Eight families asked the judge to overturn the policy of the Dover Area School District, which requires that students hear a statement about intelligent design before ninth-grade biology lessons on evolution.

Intelligent design holds that the universe is so complex that it must have been created by some kind of higher force. Critics say it's merely creationism -- a literal reading of the Bible's story of creation -- camouflaged in scientific language.

"Intelligent design became the label for the board's desire to teach creationism," Eric Rothschild, who represents the families, said in closing arguments Friday. He said it violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

But school board attorney Patrick Gillen said the policy was intended to call attention to "a new, fledgling science movement."

The statement read to students says Charles Darwin's theory is "not a fact" and has inexplicable "gaps." It refers students to an intelligent-design textbook, "Of Pandas and People," for more information.

Dover is believed to be the first school system in the nation to require students be exposed to the intelligent design concept, under a policy adopted by a 6-3 vote in October 2004.

The school district's policy "has the primary purpose and primary effect of advancing science education," Gillen said.

Earlier Friday, the defense concluded its case with testimony from University of Idaho microbiology professor Scott Minnich, who supports discussing the concept in high school science classes.

Minnich said articles on intelligent design are not found in the major scientific journals because it is a minority view.

"To endorse intelligent design comes with risk because it's a position against the consensus," he said. "Science is not a democratic process."

The history of evolution litigation dates back to the famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, in which Tennessee biology teacher John T. Scopes was fined $100 for violating a state law that forbade teaching evolution. The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed his conviction on the narrow ground that only a jury trial could impose a fine exceeding $50, and the law was repealed in 1967.

In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned an Arkansas state law banning the teaching of evolution. And in 1987, it ruled that states may not require public schools to balance evolution lessons by teaching creationism.

The clash over intelligent-design is evident far beyond this rural district of about 3,500 students 20 miles south of Harrisburg. President Bush has weighed in, saying schools should present both concepts when teaching about the origins of life.

The plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The school district is being represented by the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Thomas More Law Center, which says that its mission is to defend the religious freedom of Christians.

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