Parents sue schools over ‘intelligent design’

Teaching about ‘gaps’ in evolution theory violates church-state separation, they claim

Highlighting the growing national debate over the role of religion in public life, 11 Pennsylvania parents Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit challenging a local school district’s order to teach “intelligent design” to public high school students.

The requirement, they said, violates the religious liberty of parents, students and faculty and the constitutional separation of church and state.

On Oct. 18, the Dover Area School District Board voted 6-3 to make biology students at Dover Area High School “aware of gaps/problems” in the theory of evolution and include in ninth grade curriculum the theory of “intelligent design,” which holds that the universe is so complex it must have been created by some higher power.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg on behalf of the parents, say intelligent design is a disguised, more secular form of creationism — a Bible-based view that God, not evolution, created all species.

“There is a small group of people trying to push a particular religion on everybody,” said Joel Leib, a parent who participated in the lawsuit. “It is basically a way of teaching creationism. … It doesn’t belong in science class, just the same as evolution doesn’t belong in comparative religion class. “

In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the teaching of creationism in public schools on the grounds of separation of church and state. Intelligent design is “a Trojan horse for bringing religious creationism back into public school science classes,” said the ACLU’s Witold Walczak. The Dover school district of 3,600 students, 20 miles south of Harrisburg, is the first in the United States to require the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. Tuesday’s lawsuit is the first to challenge the concept on a federal level.

“We’re ready for it,” said attorney Richard Thompson, who represents the school board pro bono and says he is confident of winning the case.

Thompson acknowledged that intelligent design “has religious implications” because its proponents can’t identify the “transcendent being that created species. But there are religious implications to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as well. If man was an accident and not a directed thing, then you do away with God. The implication of the theory of evolution is, there is no God; it’s all forces of nature,” he said.

Although a majority of scientists consider the theory of evolution to be the best scientific explanation for the origin of the species, a minority have promoted intelligent design. These scientists say it helps explain “gaps” in Darwin’s theory, which doesn’t explain all natural phenomena.

Critics, however, say opponents of evolution are religious conservatives who have been waging war against Darwin in classrooms for years, and are growing increasingly active.

“There is an evolving attack under way on sound science education, and the school board’s action in Dover is part of that misguided crusade,” the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said in a statement Tuesday.

Since 2001, 43 states have faced challenges to teaching evolution, said Nick Matzke, a researcher at the Oakland-based National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit group that defends teaching evolution in public schools and is a consultant in the Dover case.

So far, only one other challenge to evolution has made its way to court, Matzke said. Last month, six parents filed a lawsuit against a school board in Cobb County, Ga., protesting its order to display warning stickers in biology textbooks that evolution is “not a fact.” A federal judge in Georgia is expected to rule in the next several weeks.

In Dover, Matzke estimated that the parents’ chances to win their lawsuit are “very good.”

“Evolution is great science and this intelligent design stuff is religiously motivated pseudo-science,” he said. “It seems like a pretty clear- cut case to us.”

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