School boards heeding lessons from Dover ruling

School boards heeding lessons from Dover ruling
Intelligent design case serves as cautionary tale across the country

By LAURI LEBO, York Daily Record/Sunday News, 2/19/06 - original
In the weeks after a federal judge ruled Dover's intelligent design policy was unconstitutional, supporters of the concept spent much time pointing out that the court decision had no legal standing outside the school district. Even so, other school boards across the country are heeding the words of U.S. Judge John E. Jones III, who wrote that, "To be sure, Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions."

The Ohio Board of Education voted last week to drop state science standards that, critics said, opened the door to the teaching of intelligent design. It also withdrew a controversial 2004 science lesson plan on "Critical Analysis of Evolution."

Even though Dover's court battle is almost over - plaintiffs' attorneys are soon expected to present a legal bill to the school district that might top $1 million - its influence continues.

Eric Rothschild, the Dover plaintiffs' lead attorney, said it's hard to look at "the decisions being made in a post-Kitzmiller environment" and not see the connection.

Rothschild said that Jones' strongly worded opinion leaves little doubt to the vacuousness of the pro-intelligent-design and anti-evolution movement. Still, it's apparent that school boards are also motivated by fear of a costly lawsuit, he said.

"Lawsuits aren't fun," he said.

Patricia Princehouse, a lecturer of philosophy and evolutionary biology at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University and a leader of Ohio Citizens for Science, agreed that pressure on the Ohio board increased after the Dover decision. Members of the citizens group were also assisted by recently obtained freedom of information requests.

"Only in the past six months did we put the pieces together and look at the entire pattern," Princehouse said. Once members were able to do that, she said, "it added up to a very clear picture."

The FOIA documents showed, among other things, that board members ignored the recommendations of the Department of Education's own science experts, who said the lesson plan was inaccurate and misleading.

Similar to the controversial language passed last year in Kansas, Ohio's science standards did not mandate the teaching of intelligent design, but rather required educators to "teach the controversy" of evolutionary theory. But there is no controversy in the mainstream scientific community.

The Discovery Institute, a pro-intelligent-design organization, accused science organizations of using threats of lawsuits to bully other districts.

"The ruling in Dover banning intelligent design clearly has no relevance for Ohio," Discovery spokesman Casey Luskin said in a news release. "Ohio is not teaching intelligent design, making this a completely different issue. That was merely a ploy for Darwinists to keep students from learning about the evidence challenging Darwin's theory."

The Discovery Institute, in a well-known fundraising document that became a key issue during the Dover trial, has said that it wants to use intelligent design "to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God."

Dover's plaintiffs said they were pleased to know that other school boards are responding to what happened here.

"I applaud them," Cyndi Sneath said.

One of the 11 parents who sued the Dover district, Sneath said, "They did what our activist school board wouldn't or refused to do: Make a stand for quality science education."

She said if state board members clearly believed in their cause, they would have been willing to risk being sued.

Steve Stough, another parent in the Dover case, said he has teased Tammy Kitzmiller, the lead plaintiff, about how frequently her name is now referenced. Last month, on the heels of the Dover decision, her name came up when a California school district dropped what critics called a pro-creationist philosophy class after a group of parents filed suit.

Stough, and others, say Kitzmiller vs. Dover will be compared historically to McLean vs. Arkansas, the 1982 case in which the court struck down the teaching of "creation science" alongside evolution.

While the McLean case was never appealed and had no legal authority outside Arkansas, it formed the basis for the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case Edwards vs. Aguillard, in which the court ruled that creation science was inherently religious and could not be taught in public school science classrooms.

"They (the Discovery Institute) can say what they want about the limited scope of the decision," Stough said, "but Judge Jones is a stand-up guy who made a really careful decision."

As the challenges to the teaching of evolution taking place across the country continue, Stough said he believes Dover's influence will not go away anytime soon.

"I hope this trend continues," Stough said. "I think quality education depends upon it. Maybe someday we can all breathe and be done with it."

For your info

In the wake of the Dover Area School District's trial, in which intelligent design was struck down as unconstitutional in public school science class, numerous states are debating intelligent design-friendly legislation:

Next month, the South Carolina Board of Education is scheduled to vote on whether to add "critical analysis" language regarding the teaching of evolution to its curriculum guidelines.

Oklahoma, Michigan and Utah all have proposed bills critical of the teaching of evolutionary theory.

In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry, who is running for re-election, said he supports intelligent design and thinks it should be taught in public school science class.

Supporters of Ohio's eliminated lesson plan, critical of evolutionary theory, have pledged to revisit the state school board's decision last week. Just as the Thomas More Law Center represented Dover's school board for free, the American Family Association's legal arm, which said that it derives its "policy positions from the Bible," has offered to represent the Ohio board for free if it reinstates its policy.