The court verdict in a landmark lawsuit on “intelligent design” is weeks away, but voters in Dover, Pa., delivered their judgment this week by sweeping out eight of nine school board members who decided that ninth-grade science students must be told the concept is an alternative to evolution.
The board stirred controversy by requiring a one-minute classroom statement about the idea that parts of life and the universe are so complex that an intelligent designer best explains them. That put Dover at the center of a national argument over whether intelligent design is science or religion. (Related item: Kansas schools can teach ‘intelligent design’)
All nine board members backed the classroom statement, but only eight were up for re-election. They all lost to challengers who argued that the discussion doesn’t belong in science class.
School districts and legislatures across the country are weighing policies that raise doubts about evolution and in some cases mandate the teaching of intelligent design. Most of the efforts have died in court or legislative committee, but a supportive ruling in the Dover federal court case could brighten their prospects.
Proponents say the Dover board requirement encourages critical thinking; opponents say it promotes a religious viewpoint, because the designer has to be God.
Federal Judge John Jones says he’ll rule by early January on whether the requirement violates the constitutional separation of church and state. Eric Rothschild, attorney for the 11 parents who challenged the board’s policy, says the court case remains important, despite the election. “Other state and local school boards are watching this, some with a very strong intention to teach intelligent design.”
Attorney Richard Thompson, who represents the ousted board members in the lawsuit, says the election was not a setback. “This is an idea whose time has come. And the vagaries of the political landscape in particular localities are not going to stop the progress.” Thompson is president of the Thomas More Law Center, which says its mission is to defend “the religious freedom of Christians.”
The election results in Pennsylvania came the same day the Kansas state school board adopted statewide science standards that cast doubt on evolution. Critics such as the National Center on Science Education, a non-profit group that defends evolution, say the standards open the door to teaching intelligent design.
The six-week Dover trial, which ended Friday, kept intelligent design on local voters’ minds as the election approached. Jim Cashman, 51, a board member who lost, says the trial distorted the school board’s intent. “There was a lot of stretching going on to make it seem like there was any religion involved with it,” he says. “It’s a one-minute statement with nothing religious in it. But the perception of the voters is what counts.”
The eight new school board members ran on a pledge to “discuss intelligent design in the proper forum.” They define that as philosophy or religion classes.
Patricia Dapp, 56, a health services administrator elected to the board, says her slate won some votes from people who consider the subject inappropriate for science class and from others unhappy that the board adopted the policy even though it was told it would trigger a potentially expensive lawsuit.
“It’s restored my faith in the community,” she says of the election. “They wanted a change. They definitely will get a change.”
Dapp says the new board will weigh the judge’s ruling when it starts meeting in January. “We want to have all the information and all the facts in front of us before we act,” she says.
The politics of intelligent design are changeable, hinging largely on who is paying attention to races at the bottom of the ballot. In Kansas, for example, intelligent-design supporters had a majority on the state school board in 1998, lost it in 2002 and recaptured it in 2004.
Caroline McKnight, director of Kansas’ non-partisan Mainstream Coalition, says that’s because “people took for granted that … we’d already fought this battle.” The lesson for both sides: “You can’t ever take for granted who’s in that last slot on your ballot.”