Eighty years after the Scopes Monkey Trial, the latest legal chapter in the debate over the teaching of evolution in public schools opened in a federal court in Harrisburg, Pa., yesterday in a case that could decide if schools should be allowed to introduce ‘intelligent design’ (ID) as an alternative theory to evolution.

The case comes as the nation’s high-tech sector is urging U.S. schools to improve science education or risk forfeiting America’s position as a global leader in science and technology. Critics of ID–including Eric Rothschild, the attorney representing eight families who are challenging a Dover Area School District policy on the grounds that it violates the constitutional separation of church and state–believe ID is a religious theory with no real scientific underpinnings.

The Dover Area School District “did everything you would do if you wanted to incorporate a religious point of view in science class and cared nothing about its scientific validity,” Rothschild told U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III on Sept. 26. Jones was appointed by President Bush in 2002.

In an opening argument, the school district’s attorney defended Dover’s policy of requiring ninth-grade students to hear a brief statement about ID before biology classes on evolution.

“This case is about free inquiry in education, not about a religious agenda,” argued Patrick Gillen of the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Dover’s modest curriculum change embodies the essence of liberal education.” The center, which lobbies for what it sees as the religious freedom of Christians, is defending the school district.

About 75 spectators crowded the courtroom for the start of the non-jury trial. But the scene outside the courthouse was business as usual except for a lone woman reading the Bible.

Arguing that intelligent design is a religious theory, not science, Rothschild said he would show that the language in the school district’s own policy made clear its religious intent.

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

It requires teachers to read a statement that says ID differs from Darwin’s view and refers students to an ID textbook, “Of Pandas and People,” for more information.

ID, a concept some scholars have advanced over the past 15 years, holds that Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection cannot fully explain the origin of life or the emergence of highly complex life forms. It implies that life on Earth was the product of an unidentified intelligent force.

Critics say ID is merely creationism–a literal reading of the Bible’s story of creation–camouflaged in scientific language, and it does not belong in a science curriculum.

Brown University professor Kenneth Miller, the first witness called by the plaintiffs, said pieces of the theory of evolution are subject to debate, such as where gender comes from, but told the court: “There is no controversy within science over the core proposition of evolutionary theory.”

On the other hand, he said, “Intelligent design is not a testable theory in any sense, and–as such–it is not accepted by the scientific community.”

Miller also challenged the accuracy of “Of Pandas and People” and said it almost entirely omits any discussion of what causes extinction. If nearly all original species are extinct, he said, the intelligent design creator was not very intelligent.

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 ID 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.

In August, the Kansas Board of Education gave preliminary approval to science standards that allow ID-style alternatives to be discussed alongside evolution.

Richard Thompson, the Thomas More center’s president and chief counsel, said Dover’s policy takes a modest approach.

“All the Dover school board did was allow students to get a glimpse of a controversy that is really boiling over in the scientific community,” Thompson said.


Dover Area School District

National Center for Science Education

Thomas More Law Center