By ALAN FREEMAN
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
WASHINGTON -- In a major blow to the Christian right, a federal judge ordered a Pennsylvania school board not to include "intelligent design" in its high-school biology classes, ruling that the board's real intent was to promote religion in schools in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
The ruling follows a six-month trial in the small town of Dover, Pa., that recalled the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, where Tennessee biology teacher John Scopes was fined $100 for violating a state law that banned the teaching of evolution.
That decision was later reversed on a technicality.
In his sweeping judgment, U.S. District Court Judge John Jones said the decision of the Dover School Board to introduce intelligent design into the classroom violated the constitutional protection of the separation of church and state.
"We find that the secular purposes claimed by the board amount to a pretext for the board's real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public-school classroom," Judge Jones wrote in his 139-page decision.
"The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the board who voted for the ID [intelligent design] theory," the judge wrote.
"It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID policy."
The judge criticized "the breathtaking inanity" of the board's decision, saying that "the students, parents and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources."
The Dover board had ordered the inclusion of a statement about intelligent design in Grade 9 science classes that said that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was "not a fact," and had unexplained "gaps." It then referred students to an intelligent-design text, Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins.
Intelligent-design proponents say that living things are so complex that some higher being must have been involved in their creation. The issue is being debated among school officials and the courts in several jurisdictions, including Kansas and Georgia.
Judge Jones agreed that Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect. "However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation of every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions."
Just days after the six-week trial ended in early November, voters in Dover Township threw out seven of the board's eight incumbent members, replacing them with followers of a citizens group opposed to intelligent design in the classroom.
The new board is unlikely to appeal yesterday's ruling.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which joined 11 parents in fighting the board in court, applauded the ruling, noting that its proponents had tried to create "a false dichotomy between science and religion."
"Teaching students about religion in world history or social studies is proper, but disguising a particular religious belief as science is not," the group said in a statement.
Eric Rothschild, a lawyer for the families, called the decision "a real vindication for the parents who had the courage to stand up and say there was something wrong in the school district."
The Discovery Institute, a Seattle group that promotes intelligent design, accused Judge Jones of trying to censor open debate on the issue, accusing him of being "an activist judge who has delusions of grandeur." In the language of the U.S. ideological right, activist judges are always liberal.
But Joseph Kobylka, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said the decision is particularly important because it was written by a conservative judge who was appointed by President George W. Bush.
"This is not some wild-eyed Clinton judge who is trying to restructure the world through the court," Prof. Kobylka said in an interview.
In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan repeated Mr. Bush's contention that these decisions should be made locally.
But in a comment aimed at pleasing Mr. Bush's conservative supporters, Mr. McClellan added, "The President has also said that he believes students ought to be exposed to different theories and ideas so that they can fully understand what the debate is about."
By ALAN FREEMAN