Judge rejects Pa. policy on `design'

Including subject in science class held unconstitutional

December 21, 2005|By ARTHUR HIRSCH | ARTHUR HIRSCH,SUN REPORTER

A federal judge ruled yesterday that a Pennsylvania school board's decision to include "intelligent design" in its science curriculum was unconstitutional because the concept is "rooted in theology, not science."

The often-scathing 139-page opinion - the first legal test of intelligent design - dealt a blow to ID advocates who are challenging evolutionary theory in schools around the country. The judge called ID a "mere re-labeling of creationism," which was ruled unconstitutional for public school science classes by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly 20 years ago, and accused two school board members of lying under oath.

Judge John E. Jones III, a Republican appointed in 2002 by President Bush, referred in his ruling to the "breathtaking inanity" of the Dover Area School Board's decision in 2004 to have biology students hear a statement touting ID and describing evolution as a theory with gaps "for which there is no evidence."

In a news conference in Harrisburg yesterday, Witold J. Walczak, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and a member of the plaintiffs' legal team, called the decision "a victory beyond our wildest imagination."

The plaintiffs' lead lawyer, Eric Rothschild, of Philadelphia, said anyone who attended the trial saw that "the emperor of intelligent design has no clothes."

The Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle research organization that has been advocating ID since the late 1990s, released a statement condemning the ruling as "an attempt by an activist federal judge to stop the spread of a scientific idea."

While the ruling is not legally binding outside the Middle District of Pennsylvania, it is likely to give pause to other school districts contemplating a place for ID in their curriculums. Intelligent design holds that many life forms are too complex to have taken shape without the action of some force outside of nature. Its proponents say scientists can prove certain life forms are the work of a "designer," but they stop short of saying scientists can also identify the designer.

Michigan and Indiana legislatures are considering revisions to science education standards to challenge evolutionary theory, and Kansas adopted standards last month to expand the bounds of scientific inquiry beyond the confines of the natural world, a move considered friendly to ID.

A federal judge this year ordered the Cobb County school district in Georgia to remove from biology textbooks stickers that challenge the theory of evolution. An appeal is pending in that case.

Yesterday's ruling appears to put the issue to rest in the three conservative communities of some 27,000 people making up the Dover Area School District. The new school board president - one of eight members voted in last month in a sweeping rejection of members who had supported the intelligent design policy - said the board is not likely to pursue a legal appeal.

"It's done as far as I'm concerned," said board President Bernadette Reinking, adding that the school board has not formally discussed the ID policy, but is scheduled to do so next month, when ninth-grade biology students were scheduled to hear the evolution disclaimer read once more. The statement won't be read, said Reinking.

"We're certainly not going to do anything that's unconstitutional," she said.

"The ruling came down, now the issue is over," said board Vice President Terry Emig.

Several former board members who voted in favor of the policy did not return phone messages. A receptionist at the office of school Superintendent Richard Nilsen and his assistant, Michael Baksa, said they would not comment on the ruling.

Lawyers for the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., who represented the district, did not respond to a phone message. The More Center's president and chief counsel, Richard Thompson, told the Associated Press that the ruling seemed an "ad hominem attack on scientists who happen to believe in God."

The case, brought by 11 district parents, was heard in a six-week bench trial that ended early last month after testimony from scientists, theologians, school officials and experts on the intelligent design movement.

Much speculation revolved around whether the judge would rule narrowly on the particular circumstances in Dover, or address the broader question of whether intelligent design qualifies as science.

In yesterday's ruling, he did both.

Jones found that members of the Dover board voted 6-3 on the policy October, 2004 to advance a religious purpose, and he said former board members William Buckingham, Alan Bonsell and other defense witnesses "either testified inconsistently, or lied outright under oath on several occasions."

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