Eighty years after the Scopes Monkey Trial, the latest legal chapter in the debate over the teaching of evolution in public schools is nearing its conclusion as a federal court judge in Harrisburg, Pa., soon will decide if schools should be allowed to introduce “intelligent design” (ID) as an alternative theory to evolution.

But more than that, this case is about the future of science education, and what constitutes “science” in today’s schools, some legal experts claim.

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 at the outset of the non-jury trial, which began Sept. 26.

At press time, the trial was nearing its conclusion, and Jones–who was appointed by President Bush in 2002–is expected to rule by year’s end.

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. 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.

The district’s policy requires students to hear a brief statement about ID before classes on evolution. The statement says evolution is “not a fact,” has inexplicable “gaps,” 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 he 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.” He added that ID is “the first movement to try to drive a wedge between students and the scientific process.”

Other witnesses for the plaintiffs suggested there was a clear religious intent behind Dover’s policy.

Aralene Callahan, a former member of the Dover school board, said at least two board members made statements during meetings that made her believe the new policy was religiously based.

“They were pretty much downplaying evolution as something that was credible,” Callahan said.

In the lawsuit challenging Dover’s policy, board member Bill Buckingham was quoted as saying: “This country was founded on Christianity, and our students should be taught as such.”

Lehigh University biochemistry professor Michael Behe, a leading advocate of ID, was the first witness called by lawyers for the school system.

Behe, whose work includes a 1996 best-seller called “Darwin’s Black Box,” said students should be taught evolution because it’s widely used in science and that “any well-educated student should understand it.”

But Behe argued that evolution cannot fully explain the biological complexities of life, suggesting the work of an intelligent force.

Lehigh’s biology department sought to distance itself from Behe in August, posting a statement on its web site that says the faculty “are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory.” He earned tenure at Lehigh before becoming an ID proponent, which means he can express his views without the threat of losing his job.

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 law banning the teaching of evolution. And in 1987, it ruled that states cannot 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. Even 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.

“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,” said Richard Thompson, the Thomas More center’s president and chief counsel.

See these related links:

Dover Area School District

National Center for Science Education

Thomas More Law Center