Biohazard

‘Intelligent Design’ Poses Threat To Science Education And Church-State Separation, Say Parents And Experts At Pennsylvania Trial

Pennsylvania science teacher Bryan Rehm began to suspect there might be problems afoot after a school board member summoned him and other faculty to a special meeting to watch a video.

Titled “Icons of Evolution,” the video attacked the theory of evolution and argued in favor of creationist ideas. Although the 2003-2004 school year was winding down, Rehm was alarmed because he knew the purchase of new biology texts was overdue – and this development did not portend well.

Rehm’s suspicions were confirmed at a school board meeting June 7. Board member Bill Buckingham attacked the text under consideration, charging it was “laced with Darwinism.”

Rehm, testifying in federal court recently, stated, “That’s the first where I really saw the school board meetings sort of going downhill and degrading into not very positive discussions.”

Although Rehm didn’t know it at the time, events in his community of Dover would soon spiral completely out of control. The school board, stacked with Religious Right ideologues, was determined to water down the teaching of evolution in Dover schools and promote the neo-creationist concept of “intelligent design” (ID).

Rehm and many other town residents were appalled. In Rehm’s case, his concerns were twofold: He was teaching science in the district at the time but also has a daughter being educated there and younger children coming up through the grade ranks. If science education in Dover were altered to allow for creationism, Rehm knew his own kids would pay a price for that.

The school board majority was determined to press ahead. In October of 2004, the board voted to require biology teachers in the district to present ID as an alternative to evolution and make the creationist tome Of Pandas and People available to students.

Rehm had, by this time, resigned his teaching position in the Dover schools for another district, but as a parent he continued to closely follow developments. With the board clinging tightly to its position, litigation seemed inevitable.

Two months later, it became a reality. Rehm and 10 other Dover parents filed suit, with the help of Americans United and its allies. The case got under way in federal court in Harrisburg, Pa., Sept. 26 and ran throughout October. As the first major legal showdown over intelligent design creationism, the battle is being closely watched. National television and radio news programs and major newspapers ran a flurry of stories about the case. Reporters have come from as far away as London and Paris to write about it.

The Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District lawsuit, which Americans United is bringing jointly with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, breaks new ground. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law requiring “balanced treatment” between evolution and creationism in 1987, but the new challenge contains an important wrinkle: Proponents of intelligent design insist their ideas are not religious and thus are appropriate for public education science classrooms.

Defenders of church-state separation counter that ID is merely warmed-over creationism, stripped of some of its more flamboyant claims and overt biblical literalism. At its core, they argue, ID remains a theological precept by claiming that a higher power is responsible for the complexity of life on Earth. While ID proponents sometimes shrink from using the word God, they offer no other plausible candidate as the intelligent designer.

Creationists are promoting ID, Americans United attorneys argue, simply because their efforts to slip old-style creationism into the classrooms have been rebuffed by the courts. ID, Americans United insists, is a slippery slope that leads to fundamentalist religion invading the science classroom.

Evidence indicates that was the case in Dover. During his testimony, Rehm recalled that during a meeting with school board member Alan Bonsell, Bonsell made it clear why he had concerns over the science curriculum.

Rehm said Bonsell explained that “he doesn’t believe in evolution, because that’s against his religious views, which were consistent with what I would label young-earth creationism.”

Another board member, William Buckingham, was reported by local media to have said during a meeting, “Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?” Buckingham also attacked the separation of church and state, claiming it is found “nowhere in the Constitution.”

Buckingham now denies having made these statements, despite their appearance in local newspapers. But several local residents who attended board meetings say they recall the statement.

Among them is Beth Eveland, who has two daughters in the Dover system. Eveland, now a plaintiff in the lawsuit, testified in court that she joined the legal action because she believes the religious upbringing of her children belongs to her and her husband.

“I feel it’s my duty, as a parent, to introduce any kind of faith-based concept to my children, not the Dover Area School District,” Eveland said. “While my children are small, you know, this policy is district-wide, and there’s nothing to prevent it from being trickled down into the elementary level. It’s just something that I feel strongly that my husband and I, that’s our task to bring faith to our children.”

Another parent. Tammy Kitzmiller, spoke forcefully about how the district’s policy had affected her daughter. She explained that students were given the option of opting out of the ID lesson – but the move came at a price.

“My 14-year-old daughter had to make the choice between staying in the classroom and being confused...or she had to be singled out and face the possible ridicule of her friends and classmates,” Kitzmiller said.

As testimony was taken in October before U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, one thing became crystal clear: The controversy has polarized Dover, a small town of about 2,000 residents south of Harrisburg.

Rehm testified to this when asked to explain how the controversy had hurt him.

“When I went to Dover, I thought that was going to be my teaching home,” Rehm said from the witness stand. “I enjoyed working with the faculty. I enjoyed the students I had. It was my home district. It’s where I lived. I was looking forward to that.

“Within those two years I was in the district,” he continued, “I saw a totally different side. And I saw a district in which teachers were not respected for their educational expertise. Their educational background was not respected. Science teachers were not respected. And it was all, as far as the science teachers not being respected, was out of religious ideas.”

Rehm has been especially high profile in the case. Not only is he a plaintiff, he’s also running for Dover School Board. The atmosphere in town, he said, is markedly different for him these days.

“Now people stare,” Rehm remarked. “They know you’re a plaintiff or they know in this particular case that I’m a candidate opposing the school board, and you can’t sit there and not worry about who’s looking at you or what’s going to happen, you know. You’ll go out and regularly be called inappropriate things centering around the concept of atheist. They don’t know me. They don’t know that I’m the co-director of the children’s choir at church or that I run the music…at the second service, or that, you know, my wife and I run vacation Bible school. Yet they have no problem going around calling me an atheist because my particular religious viewpoint doesn’t agree with that of the school board, which is a public entity not a religious one.”

Carol H. “Casey” Brown, a former member of the Dover board, testified about her stormy tenure on that body. Brown, who opposed the ID push, asserted that meetings felt like an “old-time Christian tent revival” and accused other board members of questioning her faith.

In court, Brown testified that Bonsell called her an atheist and that Buckingham warned her she was “going to hell.” Brown and her husband, Jeff, were both serving on the board at the time. Weary of the infighting, both resigned.

In her resignation letter, Carol Brown charged that Buckingham and another former board member, Jane Cleaver, had quizzed her on whether she was “born again.”

Witnesses in the trial, which was still ongoing as Church & State went to press, include a mix of parents, teachers, board members and academics. The court faces vexing questions – not only must it sort out exactly what happened in Dover, but it must determine whether, from a legal perspective, intelligent design is a religious concept.

To help the court wade through the complex scientific issues, a number of expert witnesses have been summoned. On the opening day of the trial, the court heard from Dr. Kenneth R. Miller, a renowned biologist at Brown University and co-author of a popular biology textbook for high schoolers.

Asked for an opinion about a pro-intelligent-design statement that the Dover board mandated be read to students, Miller was blunt.

“I think the statement by the Dover Board of Education falsely undermines the scientific status of the theory of evolution, and therefore it certainly does not promote student understanding or even critical thinking, and I think it does a great disservice to science education in Dover and to the students of Dover,” he said.

Miller gave the court a quick science lesson, explaining the theory of evolution and outlining why intelligent design, as a form of creationism, is unscientific. At one point, he even showed a series of slides.

Miller, author of the 2000 book Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, also took pains to make it clear that evolution is not inherently anti-religious.

“I deeply care about my own religious beliefs and my faith, and I also deeply care about science, and I wanted to explain to a general audience how I understand the intersection of those two beliefs, not just to reconcile them, but to confirm and enhance both beliefs,” he said.

A second expert witness, Robert T. Pennock, a Michigan State University science and philosophy professor, told the court that ID is nothing more than a updated form of creationism.

“The terminology is different, but the underlying concepts are straightforwardly connected to the [creationist] view,” Pennock said.

The testimony at times got a little complicated. Announcing a break for lunch on the first day, Judge Jones quipped, “I guess I should say, ‘Class dismissed.’”

The Dover board, which is being represented by the Thomas More Law Center of Ann Arbor, Mich., a conservative Roman Catholic group founded by Domino’s Pizza magnate Thomas Monaghan, is summoning its own witnesses as well.

One is Michael Behe, a Lehigh University biochemist and ID booster. Behe, a conservative Catholic and father of nine, accepts much of Darwinian evolution but insists that cells are so complex they show evidence of design. His work has been widely criticized by other biochemists.

Among those countering Behe was Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University and coauthor of the recent book Crea­tionism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. (Forrest was interviewed about the book in the February 2005 Church & State.)

Rather than confront Forrest head on, Thomas More Center attorney Robert Muise attacked her credentials, arguing that as a non-scientist Forrest is not qualified to address the issue. But Jones ruled that Forrest is a “hybrid expert” whose expertise on the history of the ID movement makes her contribution valuable. Jones remarked that the court was “blazing new territory.”

Having failed in their effort to unseat Forrest, Muise and fellow counsel Richard Thompson then launched a personal attack, accusing Forrest of being closely tied to the ACLU and AU and implying she is biased.

“When did you become a card-carrying member of the ACLU?” Thompson asked.

Forrest answered matter of factly and stuck to her guns, insisting that her examination of the book Of Pandas and People led her to conclude it was originally a creationist tome and that its language about intelligent design was added later.

During her testimony, Forrest offered the results of a devastating analysis she undertook of Of Pandas and People. Forrest compared a pre-1987 edition of the book with a later edition and found that repeatedly the book merely substituted the words “intelligent design” for creation and creationism.

1987 was the year the Edwards v. Aguillard decision was handed down by the Supreme Court. Forrest opined that since the high court had struck down teaching creationism in public schools, the publishers of Pandas had simply gone through the book and plugged in “intelligent design” nearly every time “creation” was used.

“That substitution was made throughout the book,” she said.

Nick Matzke, of the pro-evolution National Center for Science Education said Forrest’s testimony is crucial because it proves that Pandas was originally a creationist tome.

“You just saw the smoking gun,” he told reporters. “This proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that intelligent design is creationism.”

Attorneys with the Thomas More Center are also pitching an academic freedom argument. On the opening day of the trial, Center attorney Patrick Gillen asserted, “This case is about free inquiry and education, not about [a] religious agenda.” Gillen insisted that the curriculum change in Dover is “modest” and that it embodies the essence of a liberal education.”

But Americans United lawyers and other attorneys for the plaintiffs remained focused on their core argument: that intelligent design is a religious concept.

To help make the case, the attorneys on day five summoned John F. Haught, a recently retired professor of theology at Georgetown University, as an expert witness.

Haught is uniquely qualified to address the issue. He has authored 13 books, among them God After Darwin, Deeper Than Darwin and Responses to 101 Questions on God and Evolution. Haught told the court he is very familiar with intelligent design and stated bluntly, “It’s essentially a religious proposition.”

Haught also noted that ID isn’t a new idea. Its roots, he said, trace back to Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century theologian who argued that complex structures must have been designed by God. Modern advocates of ID, Haught said, have simply repackaged the idea.

“Intelligent-design proponents stop short of identifying the intelligent designer as God, but I would say that the structure and history of Western thought, especially religious thought as such, that most readers, if not all, will immediately identify this intelligent agent with the deity of theistic, that is biblically based, religion,” Haught said.

Haught also offered a neat summation of the difference between science and religion.

“Religion and theology deal with questions about ultimate meaning and ultimate purpose,” he said. “To put it very simply, science deals with causes, religion deals with meanings. Science asks ‘how’ questions, religion asks ‘why’ questions. And it’s because they’re doing different things that they cannot logically stand in a competitive relationship with each other any more than, say, a baseball game or a baseball player or a good move in baseball can conflict with a good move in chess. They’re different games, if you want to use that analogy, playing by different rules.”

During cross-examination, Thomas More Center attorney Thompson at­tempt­ed to lead Haught into admitting that ID is not the same as creationism.

“Intelligent design is different than creationism, is it not?” queried Thompson .

“Yes,” Haught replied, “in the same sense that, say, an orange is different from a navel orange.”

As Church & State went to press, the expert witnesses for the Dover School District were preparing to testify. Aside from Behe, those scheduled include Scott Minnich, an associate professor in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Idaho; Warren Nord, a philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina; Steve Fuller, a sociology professor at the University of Warwick in England and Dick Carpenter, a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs education professor. (Carpenter is also a former staff member with Focus on the Family, where he helped spearhead the Religious Right group’s anti-gay research.)

Interestingly, officials in Dover are calling no expert witnesses from the Discovery Institute, the most prominent ID advocacy group. The Seattle-based Institute at first expressed interest in the school board’s position in the case, but then, perhaps sensing that it’s a loser, jumped ship months ago.

A statement on the group’s Web site reads, “Discovery Institute strongly opposes the ACLU’s effort to make discussions of intelligent design illegal. At the same time, we disagree with efforts to get the government to require the teaching of intelligent design. Misguided policies like the one adopted by the Dover School District are likely to be politically divisive and hinder a fair and open discussion of the merits of intelligent design among scholars and within the scientific community, points we have made repeatedly since we first learned about the Dover policy in 2004.”

Americans United Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee attended the trial in Harrisburg and helped cooperating attorneys from the Philadelphia law firm of Pepper Hamilton prepare the case for the court. The attorneys, Eric J. Roths­child and Stephen G. Harvey, are being assisted with cross-examinations by Witold Wal­czak of the ACLU. Katskee, who drafted several key legal briefs in the case, is the only attorney working on the case whose sole area of expertise is church-state law and has remained on the scene to help craft the legal argument.

“This is an important case with nationwide implications,” Katskee said. “AU’s plaintiffs are giving compelling testimony that clearly explains how the school board’s actions affected their lives and the lives of their children. At the same time, our expert witnesses are laying out the case that intelligent design is not science.”

Continued Katskee, “A victory here will rebuff the Religious Right’s latest effort to sneak theology into the public school classroom. The stakes are high, and we’ve put forth an excellent case. I feel good about our prospects for victory.”

Testimony is set to conclude this month, with a decision expected perhaps as early as January of 2006.