Showdown over science

The teaching of "intelligent design" alongside evolution in public schools gets its first legal test at a trial in Pennsylvania.

Published September 27, 2005 2:04PM (EDT)

Religion and science clashed in a drab Pennsylvania courtroom Monday over a test case that could decide how evolution is taught in America's public schools.

The civil trial, triggered last year by a classroom battle, marks the beginning of the first major legal assault on evolution science in 18 years. The case also represents the first legal test of "intelligent design," the belief that life on earth is too complex to be explained by random genetic mutation and therefore a guiding force must be involved.

In Monday's court hearings, supporters argued that "intelligent design" does not stipulate what that guiding force might be, and is therefore not a religion. Its opponents derided it as a mere repackaging of creationism, the religious dogma that God brought life into being in its present form a few thousand years ago.

The case is a test of strength that secularist organizations hope will prove decisive in destroying the scientific credibility of intelligent design once and for all. They are therefore determined to pursue it as far as the Supreme Court if necessary.

Witold Walczak, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union arguing the case Monday, told the Guardian before the trial: "It's the first vigorous review of intelligent design. They have so far refused to enter the forum where scientists publish their theories."

The contest was joined Monday under the weak light bulbs of a federal district court in the state capital of Harrisburg. In a chamber more accustomed to hearing arguments over taxes and copyright, lawyers debated the meaning of science and the origins of life.

The defendants are the members of the school board of Dover, Pa., which last year became the first district in the country to require its teachers to question the scientific underpinning of evolution.

"The theory [of evolution] is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence," Dover teachers had to tell their students. "Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view."

The plaintiffs are 11 parents who claim that statement is religious and therefore a violation of the constitutional separation between church and state. Their legal team, backed by the ACLU, launched an assault on intelligent design, describing it as a "clever, tactical repacking of creationism," which the Supreme Court ruled in 1987 could not be taught alongside evolution.

"It is a wedge strategy to overturn the rules of science," argued Eric Rothschild, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs. "It's creationism with the words God and Bible left out. Intelligent design is not science in its infancy. It's not science at all."

The case for intelligent design was argued by three lawyers from the Thomas More Legal Center, a Christian foundation founded by Thomas Monaghan, a Roman Catholic multimillionaire and founder of the Domino's Pizza chain. In his opening statement yesterday, Pat Gillan, the lead attorney for the defense, argued that the case is "about freedom in education, not about a religious agenda."

Pointing out that the Dover statement asked schoolchildren to keep "an open mind," Gillan said: "The primary effect of the policy would be to advance science education. It is not religion. Intelligent design is really science in its purest form -- a refusal to close avenues of exploration in favor of a dominant theory."

In the United States, the case is being portrayed as a replay of the Scopes trial of 1925, in which a Tennessee biology teacher was fined for breaking a state law banning the teaching of evolution. It was known as the "Monkey Trial" because the teacher, John Scopes, was derided for believing humans were descended from apes.

Secular science has won all the big legal battles since then, but not the struggle for American minds. In an echo of the Scopes trial, some of the Dover parents involved in the case were recently mocked at a local fair by opponents who performed a monkey dance around them.

By Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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