`Intelligent design' trial testimony ends

With ruling possible by January, case could influence science curriculums nationwide

November 05, 2005|By ARTHUR HIRSCH | ARTHUR HIRSCH,SUN REPORTER

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Testimony concluded yesterday in a six-week trial that will determine whether a central Pennsylvania high school may introduce "intelligent design" to students, a case that could also influence science curriculums nationwide.

U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones III, who heard from a succession of 34 witnesses including scientists, school officials, board members and scholars during the nonjury trial, said yesterday that he hoped to rule by year's end.

In the nation's first legal challenge to intelligent design, or ID, a group of parents in the Dover Area School District claimed that the school board violated the constitutional separation of church and state when it voted 6-3 last fall to amend its policy of teaching evolution. The new policy requires school officials to read to students a statement that says, in part, "Gaps in [evolutionary] theory exist for which there is no evidence." They also state that evolution is "a theory, not a fact."

ID advocates accept elements of evolutionary theory, but they argue that the concepts developed from Charles Darwin's research in the 19th century cannot explain the variety and complexity of life forms. ID proponents insist that science can establish that certain life forms are the product of "design," although they make no claim about the nature of the "designer."

Since the late 1990s, intelligent design has emerged across the country as the most prevalent challenge to evolutionary theory. The Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank, says it does not advocate teaching ID in public schools. However, the institute has funded research and publications advancing the concept.

The judge's decision will be binding only for the Dover school district but could influence policies at school districts nationwide.

The statement approved by the school district suggests intelligent design as an alternative to evolutionary theory and recommends an ID text, Of Pandas and People.

In closing arguments yesterday, lawyers wrestled with the question of whether ID is science or creationism, and whether the Dover school board advanced it for religious reasons.

"Make no mistake," said Eric Rothschild, a lawyer for 11 Dover parents, "the leading sponsors on the board knew ID was a form of creationism when they recommended it."

But Patrick T. Gillen, a lawyer for the school district, insisted that intelligent design "is science, not religion." At times during the weeks of testimony, the proceedings seemed less trial than symposium, with lengthy testimony on complex bacterial structures and the mechanics of blood clotting.

`How dare they?'

ID is dismissed by all mainstream organizations devoted to science research and education as a religious doctrine that cannot be scientifically tested. Science education advocates say introducing the idea to high school classes confuses students about the nature of science.

Because Dover's science teachers have refused to read the statement, school administrators have twice stepped in to read it to classes. The policy does not require students to study intelligent design, and those who do not wish to hear the statement may leave the classroom while it is read.

Rothschild argued yesterday that the school board's policy denigrates the work of scientists, effectively suggesting to students that "scientists are just tricking them" with false claims for evolutionary theory, perhaps discouraging students' science ambitions.

"How dare they?" said Rothschild, part of a team including lawyers from the Pepper Hamilton firm in Philadelphia, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "How dare they stifle these children's education?"

Gillen, of the Christian advocacy Thomas More Law Center, insisted the policy can "advance education" by opening a door to the "next great paradigm shift in science."

That shift involves expanding the definition of science beyond examination of the strictly material world. Several witnesses testifying as ID advocates during the trial said that the current definition of science as an investigation limited strictly to natural phenomena excludes the causes claimed in ID. Before closing arguments yesterday, plaintiffs' lawyer Stephen G. Harvey showed an excerpt from Of Pandas and People that says ID "locates the origins of new organisms in an immaterial cause: in a blueprint, a plan, a pattern, devised by an intelligent designer."

Much of the case turns on the question of whether the school board acted to advance a religious purpose, with the plaintiffs arguing that board members mentioned creationism and religion in the context of their discussions of the biology textbook and the teaching of evolution. With the defense disputing accounts of these remarks in local newspapers, the plaintiffs during the course of the trial called two reporters to testify about what they heard and what they wrote.

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