Defeating 'intelligent design'
Defeating 'intelligent design'
WHITE PLAINS If a movie is made about last year's intelligent design trial, an updated version of Inherit the Wind, the producers will need to find a fresh, ernest face to play Eric Rothschild.

Rothschild, the co-lead counsel who helped dismantle claims that intelligent design is science, spoke at Congregation Kol Ami last night and still sounded awestruck a year later that he took part in a textbook-worthy case.

"It was an electrifying trial to be part of," said the 39-year-old Philadelphia native, who normally handles products liability litigation.

Rothschild and his co-counsel, Stephen G. Harvey, won the case in December on behalf of 11 parents who sued the Dover, Pa., school board. A majority of the board had introduced intelligent design into the science curriculum as an alternative to what they said was the flimsy theory of evolution.

The case hinged on whether intelligent design measures up as science or is really the latest take on creationism religious belief couched in scientific jargon.

Rothschild described getting hold of early drafts of Of Pandas and People, the intelligent design textbook that was mysteriously donated to the Dover schools. The early drafts referred to "Creationism" a belief in a literal, six-day creation of the world where the latest version refers to intelligent design.

"The book was written as a creationist book," Rothschild said. "When the Supreme Court said that you can't teach creationism, they used a word processor's 'search and replace.' "

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Bush, released a strongly worded, 139-page decision, rebuking the Dover school board for trying to pass off their faith as science. He threw out the intelligent design curriculum as unconstitutional.

Proponents of intelligent design insist that the development of biological life has been far too complex to be random, so that Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection cannot be right. Instead, there must be a higher power, an intelligent designer, who set in motion the development of the species.

The case drew international attention because of what it could mean for public school curriculums in other states. During the past few years, evangelical Christians in several states, including Kansas and Georgia, have opposed the teaching of the theory of evolution or demanded a creationist alternative.

Rothschild has recently joined a legal team trying to fight warning labels that question evolution on science textbooks in Cobb County, Ga.

In New York state, public schools teach the theories of evolution and natural selection as linchpins of modern science. Questions about evolution are sprinkled throughout the biology Regents exam. There has been no significant opposition to the teaching of evolution.

Many religious schools in the Lower Hudson Valley, including Catholic schools and Jewish day schools, also offer complete instruction on evolution, keeping their science courses separate from religious education.

Rothschild said that religiously inspired attacks on evolution may ebb for a while, but that there are signs that future attacks may seek to use more neutral-sounding, nonreligious language.

"They're trying to say things like, 'We just want to teach more about evolution, the positives and the negatives,' " he said. "That's the next generation."

Rothschild spoke to about 300 people, part of a larger crowd that attended "Synaplex," an evening-long mixture of worship, study, entertainment and food that is being modeled at 34 synagogues across the country. Kol Ami, a large Reform congregation, became one of the first synagogues to present Synaplex in 2003.

Rothschild came to the intelligent design trial because he was an adviser to the National Center for Science Education, one of the main groups that tries to counter efforts to curtail evolution education in public schools. When parents in Dover contacted the American Civil Liberties Union about their school board's actions, Rothschild was ready and eager to jump into the fray.

He joked that colleagues referred to his "trial against God." But he noted that among the parents who brought the lawsuit were some devout people who wanted to keep particular religious views out of their science classrooms.

Rothschild, who was warmly received by a generally liberal audience, described with a mixture of pride and wonderment the media onslaught that covered the trial. A researcher from Paramount Pictures sat in on the entire trial, leading to speculation on who would play the key lawyers in the eventual movie. Rothschild even got a marriage proposal from a blogger.

But the highlight, he said, was when The New Yorker said that he cross-examined the main intelligent design proponent with "cheerful mercilessness."

"That's as good as it gets," he said.