New school year, new battle over evolution
New school year, new battle over evolution
By Jill Lawrence - USA TODAY. Posted 8/25/2005, original
DOVER, Pa. The high school here looks like American high schools everywhere: flat, featureless and brick, with the requisite athletic field and a billboard advertising "meet-the-teams night."

But the school term that starts here Tuesday promises to be anything but ordinary. A nationally watched court case and a polarizing local school board election have made this small southern Pennsylvania town a flash point for those who support and oppose intelligent design the concept that parts of the universe and human life are so complex, they are best explained by an intelligent cause or designer. "Chance and necessity do not explain the origins of life," says Stephen Meyer, director of the Center for Science and Culture, an intelligent design think tank in Seattle.

Is intelligent design science or religion? That's the question a U.S. district court judge in Harrisburg will consider starting Sept. 26, and Dover voters will weigh Nov. 4.

The two tests arise from a long struggle to discredit evolution, the theory that life forms evolved over billions of years through a natural process. Though broadly accepted by scientists, evolution has long been challenged by creationists who say God created the universe.

Courts repeatedly have found that teaching creationism in public schools amounts to promoting a religious viewpoint, in violation of the Constitution. Now come intelligent-design advocates. Hoping to avoid church-state conflicts, they don't discuss the identity of the designer, and they deny any link to creationism. But Eric Rothschild, the attorney leading the challenge against Dover schools, says intelligent design is "a new form of creationism" that still violates the separation of church and state.

The Dover school district requires that biology classes, in addition to teaching evolution, include a one-minute statement that explicitly mentions intelligent design and a book on the subject published by a Christian foundation. That policy believed by activists on both sides to be the only one of its kind in a U.S. school district goes on trial Sept. 26 in a federal lawsuit filed by 11 parents against the Dover Area School Board. Seven school board members who support the policy are on the ballot less than six weeks later, up against challengers who say intelligent design is a religious idea that doesn't belong in science class.

Still a mystery

Intelligent design has a network of passionate scholars and supporters who have helped four states write science education standards critical of evolution. Intelligent design is a prominent topic in newspapers and magazines. President Bush recently heartened advocates when he said it should be taught along with evolution.

Yet despite all the attention they've drawn, critics of evolution are losing in court and making little headway so far in most state legislatures and school boards. And intelligent design remains mysterious to many; more than half in the latest USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll say they are not familiar with it.

"A lot of us thought that school board elections all over the country would be dominated by it particularly in conservative areas," says Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics & Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College near here. "But other than a couple of places, it just has not taken off."

Even sympathizers alike say intelligent design probably isn't destined to become a galvanizing national political movement such as abortion or gay marriage. Republicans and conservatives are divided on its merits and skeptical about its relative importance to voters. Even its most passionate proponents are moving ahead gingerly, for fear they'll provoke court challenges like the one here and set back their own cause.

The Center for Science and Culture (CSC) and its parent, the Discovery Institute, are leading promoters of intelligent design. Their goal: "to see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life" by 2018.

Discovery is trying to avoid a constitutional showdown that could result in a ban on teaching intelligent design. The current approach: urging schools to "teach the controversy" over evolution that it has fueled.

To that end, Discovery tried to head off the Dover confrontation. John West, CSC's associate director, says freedom of speech is at stake. Banning intelligent design is wrong, he says, but so is "trying to impose it in classrooms," as Dover does.

Attorney Seth Cooper advised the Dover school board not to adopt its policy and even offered guidelines for change. "We do believe a lawsuit is certain in your situation," Cooper told Alan Bonsell, the school board curriculum chairman, in a Dec. 10, 2004, e-mail. "We strongly recommend some corrective action be taken."

Discovery is constantly on alert for such brushfires. In June, when Utah state Rep. Chris Buttars proposed a bill to teach "divine design," West accused Buttars of wrongly conflating creationism and intelligent design. So far, Buttars has not introduced his bill.

Pennsylvania State Rep. Thomas Creighton introduced a bill authorizing school districts to teach intelligent design. He says it is opposed by people who have a more "atheistic" worldview. It's also opposed by Discovery, which said so in a letter to the Legislature.

No GOP consensus

Republicans and conservatives are divided over intelligent design. Seven state Republican parties Alaska, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon and Texas have "anti-evolutionist" platform planks that support teaching creationism and/or intelligent design, according to the pro-evolution National Center for Science Education.

But the national GOP platform does not mention it. In Pennsylvania, says party spokesman Josh Wilson, "there are Republicans on both sides" and it has never come up at a state committee meeting.

A few conservatives in Congress have aligned themselves with intelligent design. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said in 2001 that students should debate "such alternative theories as intelligent design." But Santorum, who is running for re-election next year, told National Public Radio on Aug. 4 that "as far as intelligent design is concerned, I really don't believe it has risen to the level of a scientific theory ... that we would want to teach it alongside of evolution."

Some Republicans are reluctant to wade in. Ex-House speaker Newt Gingrich, who often discusses his faith in God and in science, is refusing to do interviews on intelligent design. When the conservative Heritage Foundation invited CSC director Meyer to lecture last April, it received protest e-mails. Some fellows said the opposing view should also be presented. "We don't do any research in this area at all," says Stuart Butler, the group's domestic policy director. "There are a large number of people at Heritage who disagree with it."

Two other conservative think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute, list no intelligent design experts on their Web sites. Most Christian advocacy groups focus on judges, abortion and gay issues. Focus on the Family has worked with intelligent design advocates and featured proponents on founder James Dobson's radio show several times. But even so, "it's not on our radar screen as high as the other issues," says Tom Minnery, the group's vice president of public policy.

Will intelligent design ever turn into a broad movement? It may not because of its tendency to divide conservatives, and other reasons:

It's not that important to most voters. Even in Dover, intelligent design is secondary to school financing. "The big issue really is responsible management of the school system and the taxpayers' money," says school board member Jim Cashman, an intelligent design supporter up for re-election.

It's a local concern that doesn't lend itself to federal action. "It doesn't seem that it's an issue that would mobilize social conservatives nationally," Minnery says.

It's too muddled to generate what Butler calls "political adrenaline." You can't be for and against abortion, he says, but you can believe in God and evolution: "It's like thinking of the world poetically and ... of the world scientifically."

It doesn't carry the emotional punch of abortion or gay marriage. William Martin, a Rice University fellow in religion and public policy, says the intelligent design battle cry is that evolution is unproved, "and here's an alternative we believe is more appropriate."

"They're not saying human beings are being killed, or the family is being destroyed," he says, citing conservative attacks on abortion and gay marriage. Martin, author of With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, says intelligent design "is not likely to die off right away. But I don't think it will get much further."

One indicator of its future will be the outcome of the trial here. But that's expected to last several weeks and go to the Supreme Court, no matter which side wins. A more immediate measure will be the Nov. 4 school board elections.

The candidates on the Democratic ticket include four moderate Republicans. One of them, Patricia Dapp, voted for Bush last year but now says he's "overstepped his bounds" on personal, religious issues such as intelligent design.

Bonsell, the curriculum chairman, is running for re-election on the GOP ticket. He says he can't believe the fuss over Dover's policy.

His daughter will take ninth-grade biology this year along with the daughter of a Democratic opponent, physics teacher Bryan Rehm. "I don't believe in evolution, but I don't mind my daughter hearing about it. Why can't there be a discussion?" Bonsell asks.

Rehm replies: "Teach intelligent design. But not in science class."