The Devil In Dover

New Book Offers An Inside Look At The Dover 'Intelligent Design' Trial

Lauri Lebo is a former reporter for the York, Pa., Daily Record. In that capacity, she covered the controversy over “intelligent design” (ID) in Dover, Pa., including the legal challenge brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the ACLU of Pennsylvania. Lebo’s new book The Devil in Dover: An Insider’s Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-town America (New Press, 2008) is the first account of the case written by someone who lives in the area. Lebo discussed the book with Church & State recently.

Q. A lot of people were probably surprised that the first legal challenge to intelligent design in public schools took place in a small town in Pennsylvania. What happened in Dover to set the stage for this fight?

A. In my book, I write that one of the trial’s unanswered questions was whether this was a national war playing out in a small town, or whether this was a small-town political battle that played out on the national stage. But ultimately, I believe that what happened in Dover was a combination of forces – a perfect storm of audacity, if you will. There were definitely outside groups on both sides of the issue searching for the ideal test case. Most notably, lawyers with the Thomas More Law Center, which has a mission statement pledging to be the sword and the shield for Christians, had been shopping for a school district to adopt intelligent design into its science curriculum. The law firm wanted a case it could take to the U.S. Supreme Court. In exchange for board members’ willingness to be foot soldiers in this culture war, the law firm offered to represent them for free. Only Dover’s board members were willing to take the lawyers up on their offer.

Q. Were most people paying attention to what the school board was doing? Did Dover have a history of religious activity in its public schools?

A. Dover is like a lot of small towns. It has a strong base of religious fundamentalist conservatives. But it also has people who respect the Constitution and value their religious liberty.

Looking back, I’d say the signs were there. But like in most small towns, people pretty much go about their business and trust their elected leaders to do their jobs. Then, a janitor took it upon himself to remove a student’s painting depicting the “Descent of Man” from one of the science classes because he found it indecent. In the school parking lot, the man set the artwork on fire. Rather than discipline him, some of the board members expressed outrage that the mural had been in the science class in the first place because it exposed students to the idea of human evolution. For at least a year before they talked about it publicly, board president Alan Bonsell and newly appointed board member Bill Buckingham had been bullying teachers to include creationism into the curriculum.

Q. Your book contains some personal reflections about your upbringing. Had you thought much about separation of church and state issues prior to the ID controversy?

A. I knew about the U.S. Supreme Court’s Edwards v. Aguillard decision and that the teaching of creationism was unconstitutional. What I didn’t grasp was just how committed so many people are to the idea that the concept of separation of church and state is a lie – which is strange, because it was all going on around me. I’d walk into my father’s radio station, which aired Christian fundamentalist programming, and listen as people witnessed on air about “taking this nation back as a Christian nation.” But until the Dover case, I had just sort of accepted it as something quirky, but not really relevant to the bigger political picture.

When it finally erupted, I was forced into this really weird position as a journalist. We’re talking about issues of religious freedom and civil liberty and suddenly I’m wondering, am I really supposed to remain neutral about the First Amendment?

Q. You covered the trial from beginning to end. What were your impressions of the backers of intelligent design?

A. From the beginning, most of the people in the courtroom were fascinated by the science and civic lessons each day. Everyone – the plaintiffs, reporters, lawyers, spectators, even Judge Jones – would lean forward, completely engaged by what we were learning. I just marveled at the fact that I was getting paid to do this. It was that much fun.

But the board members and their supporters were clearly disinterested by the goings-on in the courtroom. Their faces were blank. They sat slump shouldered. It looked like they were always about to fall asleep. Alan Bonsell was the only exception. He wore this serene smile throughout the trial, no matter how damaging the testimony. You really had to wonder what he was thinking about.

Q. What were your impressions of Judge John E. Jones during the trial?

A. Because it was a bench trial, there was no jury. So the juror seats were taken up by the reporters covering the trial, which gave us a perfect vantage point from which to watch Judge Jones. It actually had become something of a game with us reporters, to try to figure out what he was thinking. We found him to be engaged, just as we were, by all this amazing scientific testimony. And like the lawyers, plaintiffs and journalists, he seemed to be enjoying himself.

Still, I would say that there was really only one time when we could clearly read his thoughts. It was during the testimony of Alan Bonsell, the president of the school board who directed efforts to insert intelligent design into the science standards. I think it was clear to almost everybody in the courtroom that Bonsell was lying under oath. As Bonsell continued to testify, Judge Jones turned red, and you could just see the anger on his face.

 Q. Your book is dedicated to “the Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson and the separation of church and state,” which indicates that you understand the church-state implications of ID. What are those implications and why should supporters of church-state separation be concerned about the ID movement?

A. I remember not too long before the school board inserted intelligent design into its science curriculum, Alan Bonsell gave me a copy of David Barton’s book The Myth of Separation. He said it would “help me understand.” Apparently, after he revamped the science curriculum, Bonsell planned to target the social studies curriculum next.

In his opening arguments of the trial, [plaintiffs’ attorney] Eric Rothschild pointed to the defense’s assertion that the science curriculum change was so tiny, any constitutional violations could be ignored. But as he pointed out, “there is no such thing as a little constitutional violation.”

I think he’s right. It’s clear that these things don’t end with one tiny curriculum change. This isn’t just about teaching students about alternative ideas. As the pro-intelligent design Discovery Institute’s infamous Wedge document says, “Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

Q. The plaintiffs were represented by a team of lawyers from AU, the ACLU and the Pepper Hamilton law firm with technical advice from the National Center for Science Education. What was your reaction to this legal team?

A. More than anything, it was obvious that this was a committed group who had come together to fight for something they passionately believed in. And I do think it’s true that each one of them did bring a specific and unique strength to the team. For instance, everyone was quite taken by the writing of AU’s Richard Katskee’s legal briefs. I remember reading excerpts from his documents out loud to people in the newsroom. I don’t know if this is typical for these kinds of cases, or if this is something quite rare, but many of the people from the trial – the parents, the lawyers, the scientists, the teachers – became friends and still keep in touch with each other.

 Q. Shortly before Judge Jones issued his opinion, voters in Dover removed the pro-ID faction from the school board. What happened in that election?

A. In the primary that year, voters split their vote for school board neatly down the middle. Seven candidates who supported the board’s intelligent design policy won the May primary. Seven candidates who were part of the Dover CARES group who opposed the policy also won. So, before the trial, Dover was clearly divided.

No one’s sure what happened. But during the trial, it became quite clear that board members had lied during testimony not only about their past remarks about creationism, but also about where they got money to purchase copies of the pro-intelligent design textbook Of Pandas and People. The money came from Bill Buckingham’s church.

So, the general election was four days after the last day of trial and nobody knew how it was going to turn out. Everybody was stunned when the Dover CARES candidates swept the election and all but one of the board members (who wasn’t up for reelection) was ousted by the electorate.

Q. Where do things stand in Dover now? Has the issue died down?

A. People don’t talk about it much. Folks there have to get along with each other. But one thing is pretty clear. I doubt that anybody’s mind was changed by the trial. Bill Buckingham still calls Judge Jones’ decision “a case of unjustifiable homicide.” And he still forwards me chain e-mails urging me to accept Jesus Christ as my savior.