Science Test

Pa. School District's 'Intelligent Design' Policy Violates Church-State Separation, Says Americans United Lawsuit

Tammy J. Kitzmiller believes strongly that her children should be taught modern biology in public school, not someone else’s religious beliefs masquerading as science.

Meeting that goal has been a bit of a struggle lately in Dover, Pa. The school board there is determined to work “intelligent design,” the latest version of Religious Right creationism, into high school biology classes.

Kitzmiller became alarmed as soon as word of the board overture broke.

“I followed this issue in the papers,” Kitzmiller said. “It caught my eye because I have a ninth grader. When I started to follow it, I got concerned. Obviously, I feel this is bad science, and I just don’t think it belongs in the classroom.”

Convinced that the board policy would harm her daughter Jessica’s education, Kitzmiller joined other concerned parents to stop the board’s crusade. With the help of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, they’ve taken their case to federal court.

The legal showdown has captured national and international headlines – as well as the attention of the Religious Right. Groups like Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and TV preacher D. James Kennedy and others have for years attacked evolution, simplistically blaming it for a host of social problems.

Unable to get full-blown creationism taught in public schools, the Religious Right has fallen back on a modified version – intelligent design (ID). Their plan is simple but clever: Once the Religious Right has won a place for religious theories of origins in public education, it can continue pressing for creationism in other forms. AU’s lawsuit in Pennsyl­vania is designed to slam the door on that strategy for good.

The drama unfolding in Dover, a small town of fewer than 2,000 about 20 miles south of Harrisburg, has put the issue of creationism vs. evolution back on center stage. The district is believed to be the first to mandate the teaching of intelligent design, giving Americans United’s legal challenge precedent-setting importance.

The lawsuit, which Americans United filed jointly with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, asserts that the Dover School Board has violated the constitutional separation of church and state. Board members had a clear religious motivation in passing the new policy.

The history of how the policy came to be, AU and the ACLU argue, shows this clearly.

The legal complaint, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, notes that the controversy started during the summer of 2004, when new high school biology books were being considered. During a June 7 meeting, board member William Buckingham attacked the volume under consideration, a popular text titled Biology by Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine, excoriating it for being “laced with Darwinism.”

Buckingham said he and others on the board wanted a book that would provide balanced treatment between Darwin’s theory and the biblical view of creation.

Local newspapers reported that Buckingham made no bones about his desire to see Christianity taught in the district’s schools.

“This country,” he said, “wasn’t founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution. This country was founded on Christianity, and our students should be taught as such.”

At a meeting the following week, Bucking­ham added, “Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?” He also attacked church-state separation, saying, “[N]owhere in the Constitution does it call for a separation of church and state.”

(These comments were widely reported in the local media at the time. But remarkably, Bucking­ham now denies having said them. In early January, during a deposition with Americans United attorneys, Buckingham claimed the statements are media fabrications. An ideological supporter of Bucking­ham, board member Alan Bonsell, also claimed that the newspaper reports were “fabricated.”)

The board remained deadlocked on the issue, and in early August, Buck­ingham announced that he would not support purchasing Biology unless copies of a neo-creationist book called Of Pandas and People were purchased also.

Ultimately, the board approved the selection of Biology by a 5-3 margin and declined to buy the Pandas tome. But the controversy would not die down, and activity was apparently ongoing behind the scenes. Shortly after the vote, Buck­ingham announced that an anonymous donor had provided 50 copies of Of Pandas and People to the school.

In October, the board accepted the donation and, by a 6-3 vote, passed a resolution stating that Dover students would be “made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.”

Under the new policy, science teachers would be required to read a statement to students stating that evolution “is not a fact” and that ID “is an explanation of life that differs from Darwin’s view.”

Angry parents became convinced that instruction about evolution was being undercut and that a thinly veiled version of biblical creationism was being introduced.

“There is a small group of people trying to push a particular religion on everybody,” said Joel Leib, a district parent who joined the lawsuit. “It is basically a way of teaching creationism.”

Eleven Dover parents have joined the legal effort. Most have children in Dover High School now or will in the years to come. All say they are concerned that their children will not receive a proper education in modern biology if the Dover policy is allowed to stand.

The ID crusade has divided the community and also shaken up the board. In the wake of the pro-Pandas vote, three board members resigned. Jeff Brown, Carol Brown and Noel Wenrich had all voted against allowing intelligent design into the school. In a prepared statement, Carol Brown said she had been asked by other board members if she was “born again.”

Not long after that, another board member, Angie Zeigler-Yingling, an­nounc­ed that she would step down as well. Zeigler-Yingling voted with the majority to approve Pandas but later said she regretted her action. She told the media she agreed to back the book only because other board members had accused her of being un-Christian.

The spate of vacancies gave Buck­ingham and his allies a chance to stack the board with ideological allies who are digging in for a protracted courtroom battle. Although Americans United appealed to the board to drop the ID promotion and avoid litigation, members spurned the effort. Late last year, the board voted to accept free legal representation from the Thomas More Law Center, a right-wing Roman Catholic legal group founded by Tom Monaghan, the former owner of Domino’s Pizza.

During a Dec. 14 press conference in Harrisburg, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn joined district parents in vowing to overturn the anti-evolution policy.

“Public schools are not Sunday schools, and we must resist any efforts to make them so,” Lynn said. “There is an evolving attack under way on sound science education, and the school board’s action in Dover is part of that misguided crusade. ‘Intelligent design’ has about as much to do with science as reality television has to do with reality.”

Judicial precedent backs Americans United and the ACLU. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1987’s Edwards v. Aguillard decision, struck down a Louisiana law that required public schools to offer “balanced treatment” between evolution and creationism, and no federal court has ever upheld school-sponsored religious indoctrination.

Religious Right groups have never been happy with the Aguillard decision and have spent the last 18 years trying to undermine it.

Intelligent design represents their newest effort. The concept downplays many of the features of traditional creationism, such as claims that Earth is only 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time, and instead asserts that human beings are so complex that they must have been the product of a purposeful designer.

ID advocates seem to think that as long as they don’t identify the designer as God, their ideas are acceptable for public schools. Critics say it’s not that simple. They note that, other than space aliens, which is regarded as a joke, the only “designer” candidate ever fingered is God.

Intelligent design, its opponents assert, is merely a stepping stone to full-blown creationism and the introduction of religion into public schools.

The writings of prominent ID proponents bolster this claim. Phillip Johnson, a former law professor at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, pioneered a strategy to promote intelligent design that he calls “The Wedge.” A conservative Christian who began attacking evolution after a conversion experience, Johnson makes little effort to downplay his theological opinions. He tells religious audiences that evolution inherently promotes atheism while outlining his plan to use ID to cast doubt on Darwin’s theory. (In fact, an array of Christian denominations and leaders, including Pope John Paul II, have concluded that evolution does not conflict with religion.)

Johnson has ambitious goals. Addressing a receptive crowd of fundamentalists at a 1999 conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., sponsored by TV preacher D. James Kennedy, Johnson was frank in outlining them.

To Johnson, intelligent design is just a vehicle to get people thinking about religion. He argued that the debate should be shifted from evolution vs. creationism to the question of God’s existence.

Once people are persuaded that evolution denies the existence of God, Johnson said, they are ready for the next step: They are introduced to “the truth” of the Bible, “the question of sin” and finally “introduced to Jesus.”

Johnson called for temporarily suspending the debate between young-Earth creationists, who insist that Earth is only 6,000 years old, and old-Earth creationists, who accept that the planet is ancient. The debate can be resumed, he said, once ID has been used to overthrow Darwinism.

“You must unify your own side and divide the other side,” Johnson, himself an old-Earth creationist, told the crowd.

Johnson added that college professors with legitimate academic credentials who have endorsed ID, like Michael Behe of Lehigh University, are very important to The Wedge strategy.

Behe is not a traditional creationist and accepts some of evolutionary theory. But he appears not to care that he is being used by Johnson and his cohorts to advance full-blown creationism.

Scholars like Behe, Johnson said, “enable us to get a foothold in the academic world and the academic journals. You have to prepare minds to hear the truth. You can’t do it all at once.”

More than once Johnson had admitted that his crusade really isn’t about science. In an interview with the evangelical magazine World in 1996, he said, “This isn’t really, and never has been, a debate about science…. It’s about religion and philosophy.”

Johnson reiterated the religious nature of ID during a 2003 appearance on American Family Radio, a broadcast outlet run by the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association.

“Our strategy has been to change the subject a bit so that we can get the issue of intelligent design, which really means the reality of God, before the academic world and into the schools,” he said.

Oddly enough, for all his advocacy of ID, Johnson told the San Francisco Chronicle in December that he does not support what the Dover board did. Johnson said the term “intelligent design” has become a buzzword that is best avoided and said the board would have done better to simply teach that the theory of evolution is flawed.

“It’s the problem of stirring up the automatic reaction from the lobbies that exist to protect Darwinism and have great influence with the media,” Johnson said. “You get this ‘religious fanatics are trying to censor science again’ kind of coverage.”

Johnson’s views are shared by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization that leads the fight for intelligent design. (See “The Discovery Institute: Genesis of Intelligent Design,” May 2002 Church & State.) On Dec. 14, the Institute issued a press release asserting that the Dover board had gone about things the wrong way.

“When we first read about the Dover policy, we publicly criticized it because according to published reports the intent was to mandate the teaching of intelligent design,” said Dr. John G. West, associate director of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture West. “Although we think discussion of intelligent design should not be prohibited, we don’t think intelligent design should be required in public schools. What should be required is full disclosure of the scientific evidence for and against Darwin’s theory, which is the approach supported by the overwhelming majority of the public.”

ID proponents could be keeping Dover at arm’s length because they realize the case is a loser in light of statements about religion allegedly made by school board member Buckingham and others.

Despite what national ID proponents say, Americans United and the ACLU insist that the religious underpinnings of ID in Dover are obvious. They point out that Of Pandas and People is published by a religious organization. The Texas-based group, the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, originally described its mission was “proclaiming, publishing, preaching [and] teaching…the Chris­tian Gospel and understanding of the Bible and the light it sheds on the academic and social issues of the day.”

The Foundation is less upfront about its goals these days. In keeping with the trend to attempt to secularize ID, the group’s website (www.fteonline.com) gives little indication that the organization is religious. The online mission statement is now much more benign sounding, reading in part, “The Foundation for Thought and Ethics is working to restore the freedom to know to young people in the classroom, especially in matters of worldview, morality, and conscience, and to return the right of informed consent to families in the education of their children.”

The Foundation was more forthcoming in 2002 on its Form 990, a document the Internal Revenue Service requires all non-profit groups to file annually. There, the Foundation listed its mission as “Promoting & publishing textbooks presenting a Christian perspective of academic studies.”

Advocates of church-state separation are alarmed by the Religious Right’s ongoing efforts to force a sectarian perspective of origins into public school science classes. Many argue that this not only violates church-state separation, it also detracts from efforts to maintain good science education.

ID proponents don’t publish in peer-reviewed journals and have little academic standing. Evolution, by contrast, is no longer considered controversial by the vast majority of biologists. The scientific concept is taught without controversy in public universities, and ID is not given equal time. There’s a reason for this: Universities are rarely subject to the same political pressures that plague many secondary schools.

A Dec. 21 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted this, pointing out that ID “has made no headway into the science curriculums at secular universities.”

The article went on to assert that many ID proponents assert there is bias or a conspiracy against them, but, as the piece noted, “Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University and a leading critic of the intelligent-design movement, says such a view turns the scientific process on its head. If a researcher’s theories are rejected, he says, that means that they have failed as good science, not that they’re being suppressed.”

Biology professors at Pennsylvania universities have issued public statements denouncing the Dover board’s move. In early December, 12 members of the York College Biology Department published an open letter in the York Daily Record saying the board’s promotion of ID “reflects a genuine lack of knowledge about the data supporting evolution by natural selection.”

About one month later, 33 professors at the University of Pennsylvania issued a similar letter. The faculty members at the ivy-league school observed, “As scientists, scholars, and teachers, we are compelled to point out that the quality of science education in your schools has been seriously compromised by the decision to mandate the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ along with evolution. Science education should be based on ideas that are well supported by evidence. Intelligent design does not meet this criterion: It is a form of creationism propped up by a biased and selected view of the evidence.”

Science teachers in the Dover district are also speaking out. On Jan. 6, every science teacher in the district but one signed a letter to the board asking that they be allowed to “opt out” of reading the pro-ID statement to students. The teachers argued that the statement violates the Pennsylvania Code of Profes­sional Conduct for Educators. (The one teacher who did not sign does not teach biology.)

“We believe reading the statement violates our responsibility as educators as set forth in the code,” reads the letter. “Students are allowed to opt out from hearing the statement. We should be allowed to opt out from reading it.”

“We do not believe this [ID] is science,” high school science teacher Jen Miller told the Daily Record. The Dover board has granted the opt-out, saying the ID statement will be read in classrooms by administrators.

Biologists and groups that advocate good science education are watching the Dover lawsuit closely.

“The Dover creationist policy is something we don’t want to see spread to other communities, for many reasons,” said Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist who serves as executive director of the National Center for Science Edu­cation in Oakland, Calif. “Intelligent design, of course, is ‘creationism lite,’ and is just another way of getting God the Creator into the science classroom.”

Concluded Scott, author of the new book Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction, “Teaching alleged ‘gaps/ problems in Darwin’s theory’ is also objectionable, and not just because it is bad science. Teaching students that evolution is an unusually shaky or weak theory is intended to persuade them that living things actually don’t have common ancestors, which leads them to ask, ‘Gee, teacher, what IS the cause?’ The answer implied or explicit is of course, God.”

Those on the frontlines such as Kitzmiller urge parents in other parts of the country to be vigilant and keep an eye on their local school boards. The Dover board, she noted, gained a right-wing majority after a slate of candidates ran promising to bring fiscal discipline to the district. The candidates, she noted, never mentioned a religious agenda.

“I would hope a lot of school districts are following this controversy,” Kitz­mill­er told Church & State. “People need to keep an eye on this. They need to keep their science classes straight and need to keep the school focused on science in the science classroom.”