An Alternative to Evolution Splits a Pennsylvania Town
By NEELA BANERJEE, New York Times, January 16, 2005 - original
DOVER, Pa. - Ever since the school board here voted to make this town in Pennsylvania Dutch country the first in the nation to discuss an alternative to evolution in high school biology classes, students have been as sharply divided as the rest of this normally close-knit community.
"I think we should have a choice: They should teach you both," said Meagan Hass, 14, while eating pizza after school at KT's restaurant with her friend Abbi Hake. "Evolution to me is like we come from monkeys."
At a nearby table, Jessika Moury, 14, said her mother supported the school board but she did not. "There are so many aspects of religion, so you have to teach what each of them says," Jessika said. "There's Bible Club in school for this, and that's where it should be taught."
With the new instruction on the origin of life set to begin, Dover has become a critical testing ground in a widening national debate about teaching evolution.
In early January, Dover High School's science teachers refused to read to ninth-graders a short statement written by the school board that criticizes evolution and cites a controversial approach called Intelligent Design as an alternative.
The teachers contend that such a change to the curriculum amounts to teaching Intelligent Design and that the approach is inherently religious, not scientific.
"Kids are smart enough to understand what Intelligent Design means," said Robert Eshbach, a science teacher who refused to read the statement. "The first question they will ask is, 'Well, who's the designer? Do you mean God?' "
Jen Miller, who teaches ninth-grade biology, said she saw no conflict between evolution and religion.
"I've never had a problem in my classroom in the way I approach evolution," Ms. Miller said. "Just because I teach evolution doesn't mean that God's not there or that I'm going against the religious beliefs of my students." With the teachers balking, an administrator will read the statement instead, as early as next week. Students may opt out of the reading with their parents' permission.
Several states have issued disclaimers to students questioning the validity of evolution, claiming it is riddled with gaps. But the Dover school board went further on Oct. 18 when it voted to specifically identify an alternative to evolution and encourage students to learn more about it.
Proponents of Intelligent Design, which asserts that life is so intricately complex that an architect must be behind it, say it is a valid scientific theory. Critics argue that Intelligent Design has no basis in science and is another iteration of creationism. And while people are still polite to one another in Dover, those same arguments have split school board members, clergy, residents and students alike.
"It's been very polarizing," said the Rev. David F. Sproull, pastor of the Dover Assembly of God Church and a supporter of the board's decision. "I see very few people sitting in the middle of it. It evokes very strong feelings."
Some have already moved to stop the school board. In mid-December, 11 local parents represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued the school board, contending that discussing Intelligent Design is a way to foist religion on their children.
"The dispute here isn't between Christians versus non-Christians or non-believers," said Jeff Brown, a former school board member who voted against criticizing evolution. "It's between Christians who are comfortable with the Constitution and those who want special treatment."
Conservative Christians across the country say the re-election of President Bush has given them the momentum to achieve important local goals, including challenging the teaching of evolution, and they are watching developments in Dover closely.
In a November 2004 CBS News Poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans said they favored teaching creationism alongside evolution in schools.
In Grantsburg, Wis., the school board recently voted to teach a critical approach to evolution, without identifying alternatives. In South Carolina, legislation will be introduced to examine the state's curriculum on teaching the origin of species. In Kansas, conservatives who favor challenging the teaching of evolution recently won a majority on the state school board, and they are generally expected to change the state science curriculum as early as the spring.
[A federal judge in Georgia ruled on Thursday that schools in Cobb County must remove from science textbooks stickers that criticize evolution, dealing a blow to local creationists.]
Located 25 miles southwest of Harrisburg, Dover, population 25,000, is a cluster of modest churches, clapboard homes and weathered family restaurants hemmed by rolling farmland. It is in York County, which supported President Bush by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in the November election. The area was largely settled by the small Protestant denominations that grew among the Pennsylvania Dutch, and people learned to be tolerant of those with differing beliefs because of the patchwork of faiths that made up their town, Mr. Brown said.
But a growing number of conservative Christians in Dover, like many elsewhere, bridle at what they see as the marginalization of their faith in a country they believe was founded on biblical values. "I think we're coming to place where we're certainly not browbeating people with religion, but that it has just become a normal part of life now," Mr. Sproull, the pastor, said of introducing Intelligent Design to the local high school. "Everyone in the country seems to have freedom of speech but those who talk about religion and God."
To many in Dover, teaching students that the Earth is millions of years old or that man evolved in ways that contradict biblical accounts is akin to promulgating atheism.
"If they can teach there is no God, then they can teach there is a God," said Jean Eisenhart, 72, as she left the Dover Diner after breakfast on a recent brisk morning.
The six people on the nine-member board who voted for the challenge to evolution have declined to talk to the news media because of the pending lawsuit. But the high school's science teachers said they were first approached by a board member about evolution in fall 2003.
By last summer, some members tried to stop the purchase of a biology textbook recommended by teachers because it mentioned Charles Darwin.
The York Dispatch quoted one board member, William Buckingham, as saying in that debate: "Nearly 2,000 years ago, someone died on the cross for us. Shouldn't we have the courage to stand up for him?" Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center, a Christian legal defense group representing the six board members, said Mr. Buckingham made that statement in another context, a dispute about the Pledge of Allegiance in 2003.
The textbooks were ultimately ordered, but the board voted to have teachers read the statement criticizing evolution. Mr. Brown and his wife, Carol, longtime board members, resigned in protest. Many people have supported them; others stopped talking to them.
"I got no joy out of it," Mrs. Brown said. "But people have to be aware: This is dividing the country. Who pays attention to school board meetings anyway?"
The Rev. Warren Eshbach, an adjunct professor at Lutheran Theological Seminary in nearby Gettysburg and the father of Robert Eshbach, the science teacher, warned at board meetings about how divisive the issue might prove. Like many fellow Dover residents, he said the biblical account of the origins of humanity should be taught in a comparative religion class, not a biology class.
"Science is figuring out what God has already done," Mr. Eshbach said. "But I don't think Genesis 1 to 11 was ever meant to be a science textbook for the 21st century."
Noel Wenrich, an evangelical Christian board member who voted with the Browns against the measure, said he wanted approaches other than evolution explained in school. But given a 1987 Supreme Court decision against teaching creationism, he worried that the mention of Intelligent Design would embroil the district in losing lawsuits and drain it of badly needed funds.
"I think that 80 percent of the community might support the measure, but not if taxes go up," Mr. Wenrich said. "Then it's 30 percent."
Ninth graders at Dover High have been following the ruckus, and some say they wish that it would stop, and that Dover might be known for something else, something more run-of-the-mill, like its academics.
Amy Mummerd, a ninth grader, put some of her classmates' frustrations directly. "I think it should be kept out of school," she said of Intelligent Design. "Because it goes against the separation of school and church, or whatever."