Crusade for creationism

A Pennsylvania school board is in the forefront of nationwide efforts to bring the fight over evolution to the Supreme Court.

Published December 13, 2004 2:31PM (EST)

Jeff Brown is a passionate defender of the borough where he lives. Dover, tucked away in the rural hinterland of Pennsylvania, is a conservative place, he says. It has never been the sort of place to attract attention. Until now.

Dover is becoming famous after its school board decided to introduce an alternative to evolution in parts of its biology curriculum. The furor caused Brown and his wife, Carol, to resign from the board. Extremist Christians, he believes, have taken it over with an agenda to undermine the teaching of evolution. Now he is angry. "This community is going to rebel," he said. "People believe your religion is your own private business."

Dover has been catapulted into the center of a renewed battle over the teaching of evolution in schools. The religious right, emboldened by its spreading influence in the Republican Party and an explosive growth in the number of evangelical Christians, has launched a major push to get an alternative to evolution -- which they believe denies the biblical version of God's creation of the world -- into the classroom. At least 40 U.S. states have faced legal challenges in recent months.

At the forefront of the challenge is the concept of "intelligent design," which stipulates that the universe is so complex it shows clear evidence of a "designer." Advocates say evolution is just another theory, not a scientific fact. Critics, however, say intelligent design is bringing religion into science. "It is just creationism-lite," said Nick Matzke, a spokesman for the National Center for Science Education.

The move in Dover was led by William Buckingham, a born-again Christian. The decision has split the community and dominates conversation in diners, bars and churches. The Browns say Buckingham and a group of evangelical Christians have hijacked the school board and imposed their views on a community in which creationism in the classroom had never been an issue. "They are on a crusade," Brown said. His wife added: "Dover is just ahead of the curve. There will be a lot more things like this in other places."

In fact, Dover is already just part of a growing phenomenon. In Cobb County, Ga., textbooks have had stickers stuck inside them telling children that evolution is "theory, not fact." In Grantsburg, Wis., new rules direct teachers to analyze the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution, as well as allow for the study of other theories. In Ohio the state school board has sought to open the way for the teaching of opposing theories to evolution. The Missouri Legislature will consider the introduction of intelligent design into its classrooms last year.

Arguments over evolution -- which has long been accepted as fact by the vast majority of scientists -- arouse deep passions in America. Almost 80 years after the Scopes "monkey trial," in which Edward Scopes was tried and convicted for teaching evolution in Tennessee, many Americans still do not believe in it. A Gallup Poll last month showed that 45 percent believe God created humans in their present form within the past 10,000 years.

Now both sides are preparing to take the issue to the Supreme Court for the first time since the '80s. A conservative law firm, the Thomas More Law Center, has offered to represent the Dover school board members. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union is looking for Dover complainants to take the case on from a pro-evolution view. Conservatives are confident that they will prevail. "We are going to win. It is a free-speech right for students to receive alternative views," said Richard Thompson, president of the law center.

Thompson says intelligent design does not by its nature advocate a religious point of view, which would be against the U.S. Constitution. "It is based on science that shows the world is so complex it could not have happened by accident," he said. Critics contend the very concept of a "designer" implies a god.

Religious groups have been galvanized by the reelection of President Bush, a born-again Christian who has stated: "On the issue of evolution, the verdict is still out on how God created the Earth."

Christians are being encouraged to join school boards and lobby to get intelligent design in the curriculum. "We have as much right as the evolutionists to be on our school boards," said Patricia Nason, of the Institute for Creation Research. She and fellow creationists believe Bush's victory gave them a chance to get their agenda into schools. "I feel that if we don't make progress in the next four years that window of opportunity will close," she said.

By Paul Harris

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