A Pennsylvania school district's use of "intelligent design" in its high school biology curriculum goes on trial in federal court today in the nation's first legal challenge to the idea, which contends that evolutionary theory alone does not explain how life on Earth took shape.
The lawsuit, brought by 11 parents in the Dover Area School District, attacks as unconstitutional the year-old policy of telling ninth-grade biology students that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution "is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence." School officials also recommend a book on intelligent design, or ID.
The plaintiffs, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, argue that the policy -- which does not require students to study intelligent design -- serves religious, not secular ends, violating the First Amendment.
ID proponents say scientists can look at life forms and identify the work of a controlling "intelligence," although ID advocates are not specific about the nature of that force. While they do not reject all evolutionary theory, ID proponents argue that it incorrectly insists life took shape purely through a mindless process.
Based on Darwin's Origin of Species, first published in 1859, evolutionary theory today is embraced overwhelmingly by scientists and affirmed in recent discoveries about DNA. President Bush's science adviser, John H. Marburger III, told The New York Times last month that "evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology," and went on to say that "intelligent design is not a scientific concept."
The Dover case throws into court a dispute simmering in school districts and state legislatures across the country, testimony to the conservative American mood and the status of intelligent design as the most prevalent challenge to teaching evolution since so-called "creation science" was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987.
In January, a U.S. district court judge ruled unconstitutional disclaimer stickers placed on textbooks in Cobb County, Ga. Although the stickers, put on in 2002, did not mention intelligent design, they resembled the Dover disclaimer in referring to evolution as "a theory, not a fact." The school board is appealing the order to remove the stickers.
Nationwide, school districts debating a possible role for intelligent design in their curriculum could take their cues from such cases.
Each side in the case insists it serves the best interests of students. The plaintiffs say they're upholding the integrity of science education; the defendants say students should hear a range of views on an essential scientific topic.
Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, an organization advocating the teaching of evolution, wrote in an e-mail that a court ruling against the district "will pour sand in the gears of the effort to get ID taught in schools around the country." An adviser to the plaintiffs, Scott expressed confidence that the judge would rule against the school district because "ID is so obviously a religious position."
Richard B. Katskee, a lawyer with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said a ruling against the school district would "send a strong message that intelligent design is creationism."
Critics call ID an updated and intellectualized version of creationism, but Dover school officials say ID makes scientific, not religious or supernatural, claims.
Richard Thompson, a lawyer for the school district, said the case is "science versus science, not science versus religion."
If the creationist "starts with the Book of Genesis, the ID theorist does not look to Holy Scripture. He goes to the laboratory and looks at the evidence," Thompson said.
Thompson and the other two lead lawyers for the district work for the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., a nonprofit organization devoted to "the defense and promotion of the religious freedom of Christians," according to its Web site.
Thompson said the religious argument in the case cuts both ways, as "many Darwin proponents use Darwinism to support their religion of atheism or secular humanism."
Intelligent design first emerged in the mid-1980s as a challenge to evolution. It has picked up momentum since 1996, when the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank supported largely by conservative, religious benefactors, established the Center for Science and Culture to support ID research and writing.
The Dover case is set to unfold before U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III in Harrisburg, Pa., as a blend of legal contest and symposium on pedagogy, religion, science and the ID movement.