God's not scorned, and all's quiet

Dover, Pa., gets a respite from the spotlight over intelligent design

November 11, 2005|By ROBERT LITTLE | ROBERT LITTLE,SUN REPORTER

DOVER, PA. -- Jim Cashman wants a recount, but even if he still winds up losing his seat on the area school board, he wants to make something clear: God has not been voted out of office.

In fact, God is very much in good favor in the shops and creaky porch-fronts of this small Pennsylvania town, despite the community's apparent objection to discussing "intelligent design" in the local public high school, Cashman said. The Supreme Being certainly hasn't been "rejected" from the place, as religious broadcaster Pat Robertson suggested the other day.

"That was an unfortunate thing to say," said Cashman, a 51-year-old auto repair shop owner who was among eight school board members voted out of office this week, ostensibly for approving a four-paragraph passage, read during ninth-grade biology class at Dover Area High School, suggesting an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution.

Reacting to Robertson

Bill Cooper was less restrained. "Pat Robertson is a nitwit," said Cooper, a 67-year-old retired telephone company worker who voted against Cashman in Tuesday's election. "I guess I better move out of Dover, huh? I sure don't need God against me."

Cashman and Cooper might not agree on much, particularly the weighty question of religion in public schools that has saturated life in this town for much of the past year. From the worldwide media coverage of this township west of York, Pa., you might think the place is a virtual gangland of fanatical liberals and religious conservatives.

But with the election largely settled and the succession of television cameras reduced to just four or five a day, the citizens of Dover are quick to agree they're thrilled that it might all soon be over. In fact, a lot of them thank God.

"This is not a fight between the residents of Dover Township anymore," said Steve Farrell, outside the nursery he and his brother own on the north end of town. "It's a fight between the two extremes that exist in this country - the religious right and the ACLU.

"They were ready to fight this battle between themselves somewhere, and this community just gave them the platform to do it. It's not about the children here anymore."

A few sentences

What it's about is a few sentences suggesting that the theory of intelligent design, or ID, might answer some of the questions that Darwin's theory does not. The statement, now read in Dover's 9th-grade biology classes by order of the school board, doesn't explain what "intelligent design" is - a religion-tinged concept suggesting that some unexplained force is at work in places that science can't explain. But it invited students to visit the library to learn more.

Darwin's theory "is not a fact," the statement said. "Gaps in the theory exist for which there is not evidence."

"With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind," it continued. "The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families."

The town's conservative school board members approved the paragraph this year, and when opponents on the board promptly resigned, the remaining members appointed replacements. A slate of eight opposition candidates was quickly formed to run against the board, creating a clear Election Day division between the proponents and opponents of intelligent design.

The battle was also fought in federal court in Harrisburg after a group of families sued to have any mention of intelligent design removed from the schools. The trial ended last week, and the judge has yet to rule.

But Dover was the front line, and yesterday the city was still smoldering from the Election Day defeat of all eight intelligent-design proponents on the ballot. Evidence of the battle - the yard signs, the frayed nerves - have not disappeared.

Cooper and Farrell could be found at the opposite ends of Carlisle Road yesterday, and on opposite poles of the debate over matters of religion in schools and the separation of church and government.

"I'm a Christian. I go to church. I believe in God," said Cooper, sneaking a cigar in his driveway before removing his campaign signs promoting the new school board. "But when I went to school, we all learned about God and the Bible in Sunday school or in church or at home. It shouldn't be taught in a public school, especially not in science class."

"You know what? I agree with Pat Robertson. People should be worried about God's reaction," Farrell said, before removing his signs supporting the ousted board. "Look at the tsunami, look at the hurricanes, the wars, the terrorist bombings. People think they can live all comfortable, and that God will take care of them, but what they should do is learn how to have a relationship with God."

Still, even as they recounted the stark differences, the almost epic debate that turned their little community into a crucible for the nation's burning questions about God and government, everyone seemed content for the issue to fade away, even if the greater questions remain unresolved.

Cashman, who believes a voting booth glitch might have kept him from getting the votes to remain on the school board, says he is eager for his ninth-grade son to get on with his education, regardless of whether it includes one minute of instruction about intelligent design.

"We don't need this in Dover anymore," Cashman said. "This isn't the kind of community where people are at odds like this."

"We're all reasonable people, and we're intelligent enough to draw the lines between church and state in the appropriate place," said Farrell, who says he became a born-again Christian about 4 1/2 years ago. "I'm just glad to see God on the front pages for a while."

"It's really divided this community, neighbor against neighbor," Cooper said. "Everyone is glad that it looks like it's over."

robert.little@baltsun.com

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