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Five years ago, "intelligent design" ruling in Dover case set a legal landmark

HARRISBURG - In 2004, almost 80 years after Tennessee teacher John Scopes attemped to resolve the battle between teaching evolution and creationism in U.S. classrooms, parents in a central Pennsylvania school district filed a suit that reignited the debate.

Judge John E. Jones, seen here in his Federal Courthouse office in Harrisburg, issued the 2005 landmark ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)
Judge John E. Jones, seen here in his Federal Courthouse office in Harrisburg, issued the 2005 landmark ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)Read more

HARRISBURG - In 2004, almost 80 years after Tennessee teacher John Scopes attemped to resolve the battle between teaching evolution and creationism in U.S. classrooms, parents in a central Pennsylvania school district filed a suit that reignited the debate.

Eleven residents of Dover, 25 miles southwest of Harrisburg, sued over their school board's decision to introduce "intelligent design" into the high school biology curriculum.

Their suit contended that teaching intelligent design - which holds that the universe is so complex that a supernatural force must be at work - violated the constitutional separation of church and state because intelligent design is a religious concept, not a scientific one.

The 40-day trial drew worldwide attention as it pitted renowned biologists and paleontologists against Dover school board members and intelligent-design theorists.

On Dec. 20, 2005, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones 3d issued a landmark ruling that the "overwhelming evidence" at trial demonstrated that intelligent design was indeed a religious view. It was, he wrote, "a mere relabeling of creationism and not a scientific theory."

Almost immediately after Jones' decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover, the evolution battleground shifted to state and local governments, effectively silencing direct challenges to Darwin's theory in the courts and opening fresh debates in legislatures and on school boards.

The case's exposure generated a wave of funding for supporters of the theory of evolution through natural selection. Many scientists stepped up their roles as advocates. And Jones, of Pottsville, embarked on a mission to promote judicial independence and civics education.

"Most of the time the big impact comes with Supreme Court cases, but this was at trial court," said Eric Rothschild, a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs.

Dover, he said, was "a bigger cultural moment."

The decision - which was not appealed - refocused the work of those who defend evolution.

"We're not fighting Dovers in every fifth school district in the country," said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, which lent its expertise to the plaintiffs.

"Dover seriously put the brakes on the intelligent-design movement."

But the creationist movement of the 1920s that became the intelligent-design movement in the 1980s has again refashioned itself, into one that promotes "teaching the controversy" of evolutionary theory, say Scott and others.

The approach, tried most recently in Louisiana, is to disclaim evolution, and to argue to teach it is poor science, Scott says.

"Intelligent design will probably not pass constitutional muster, but the movement always adapts to the court cases and calls it something else," said Michael Berkman, a Pennsylvania State University political science professor and co-author of the recently published Evolution, Creationism and the Battle to Control America's Classrooms. He and co-author Eric Plutzer, also of Penn State, surveyed more than 900 schools about their approaches to teaching evolution.

In the most recent case, the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF) lobbied the state school board to reject high school biology textbooks it called biased and incorrect for neglecting the controversy surrounding evolution.

On Dec. 9, pro-evolution forces prevailed, as the board adopted textbooks over the objections of citizens who wanted to insert a mention of creationism or intelligent design - or at least, they said, for the science curriculum to note that the theory of evolution is not a fact.

"The LFF goal was to have pro-evolution passages of the books censored or rewritten," said Ken Miller, author of Miller and Levine Biology, a widely used high school biology text that was among those under debate.

Miller, a witness in the Dover trial and a Brown University biology professor, said claims of controversy over evolution are a "gross misrepresentation of fact."

"No scientific explanation, including evolution, is ever considered to be final or complete," he said. "However, the forms of 'critical analysis' promoted by the Louisiana Family Forum are actually a series of baseless arguments against evolution that have been repeatedly discredited by the scientific community."

Gene Mills, president of the Louisiana Family Forum, which had hoped to win state support to have science textbooks undergo further review, said his group sought only an honest discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of Darwin's theory.

"In spite of what our opponents claim - that it's intelligent design or introducing religion or creationism - in the hope of marginalizing legitimate concerns we have, the law is clear: Teachers may introduce supplemental material," Mills said.

He was referring to legislation signed into law in Louisiana in 2008 that lets teachers use supplemental material when teaching subjects such as global warming or the origin of species. A similar proposal fizzled in Pennsylvania, but conservative groups say they hope to resurrect it.

The battle is not over, said Mills, who plans to take up the issue with school superintendents in his state.

"The bigger question is whether what a federal judge decides is . . . the final say," he said, referring to Dover. "One of the great injustices in America today is that we have public education coming under the control of a federal judge who is not necessarily infallible. I don't think Dover is the final word."

Berkman and others say the Louisiana case is an example of the new battle over textbooks as they come up for review.

Evolution also suffers in the classroom, according to Berkman's survey, because many teachers are timid, may undermine the science, or may not present evolution thoroughly. Others slip creationism into the curriculum, he said.

"Too many biology teachers skip evolution, give one lecture, or leave it till the end," Scott said.

Rothschild argues that Dover enabled teachers to teach evolution without trepidation.

"I often think about what would have happened if we hadn't won," Rothschild said. "We would have seen dozens, if not hundreds, of schools adopt intelligent design."

The case cemented friendships among witnesses, lawyers, and plaintiffs who hold an annual reunion and share e-mailed updates on the latest evolution cases.

"There's a huge bond," Rothschild said. "The case was fun and exciting. I treasure these relationships."

Jones was named one of Time's 100 Most Influential people in 2006 and is in demand on the lecture circuit. He has delivered speeches in 30 states using Dover as a hook to explain judges' role to his audiences.

"Dover was a life-changing event in terms of allowing me to have a voice about judicial independence," said Jones, 55, in his corner office in the federal building overlooking the Capitol.

"The troubling aspect is that I've recognized we have a need to have better civics education," said Jones, who said he feels sheepish when listeners ask him to autograph copies of the decision.

Science teachers have told him they waited at their computer screens that morning five years ago when they got word the decision was at hand.

He had no idea how ugly it would get afterward, Jones said. He received death threats that required U.S. marshals' protection and was "eviscerated" by conservative TV commentators.

"I could have gone in either of two directions: bolt the chamber door shut, take my lumps, and move on, or respectfully choose a path to talk about how the judicial system works," Jones said as he sat at his office table, near a monkey skull given to him at one of his speaking engagements.

"The decision is holding up pretty well. That doesn't mean it will do down in history as a legal watershed moment," Jones said. "That will probably be decided long after I am dead."