In Intelligent Design Case, a Cause in Search of a Lawsuit
In Intelligent Design Case, a Cause in Search of a LawsuitBy LAURIE GOODSTEIN - New York Times, Nov. 4, 2005HARRISBURG, Pa., Nov. 3 - For years, a lawyer for the Thomas More Law Center in Michigan visited school boards around the country searching for one willing to challenge evolution by teaching intelligent design, and to face a risky, high-profile trial.
Intelligent design was a departure for a nonprofit law firm founded by two conservative Roman Catholics - one the magnate of Domino's pizza, the other a former prosecutor - who until then had focused on the defense of anti-abortion advocates, gay-rights opponents and the display of Christian symbols like crosses and Nativity scenes on government property.
But Richard Thompson, the former prosecutor who is president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Center, says its role is to use the courts "to change the culture" - and it well could depending on the outcome of the test case it finally found.
Lawyers for the center are to sum up their case on Friday after a six-week trial in which they have been defending the school district in the small Pennsylvania town of Dover. The school board voted last year to require that students in ninth grade biology class be read a statement saying that "Darwin's theory" is "not a fact" and that intelligent design is an alternative worth studying.
At issue in the Dover lawsuit, brought by 11 parents in Federal District Court, is whether intelligent design is really religion dressed up as science, and whether teaching it in a public school violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
The More center's lawyers put scientists on the witness stand who argued that intelligent design - the idea that living organisms are so complex that the best explanation is that a higher intelligence designed them - is a credible scientific theory and not religion because it never identifies God as the designer.
Still religion is at the heart of the case's appeal for the center, say its lawyers and the chairman of its board.
The chairman, Bowie Kuhn, the former baseball commissioner, said the board agreed that the center should take on an intelligent design case because while it is not necessarily based on religion "it is being opposed because people think it is religious." And that was enough for a group whose mission, as explained on its Web site, is "to protect Christians and their religious beliefs in the public square."
"America's culture has been influenced by Christianity from the very beginning," Mr. Thompson said, "but there is an attempt to slowly remove every symbol of Christianity and religious faith in our country. This is a very dangerous movement because what will ultimately happen is, out of sight, out of mind."
The legal group was founded in 1999 by Mr. Thompson and Thomas Monaghan, the former chief executive of Domino's pizza. At the time, Mr. Thompson had just lost his re-election campaign for prosecutor in Oakland County, Mich., defeated by voters disenchanted by his pursuit of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the retired pathologist who attended numerous assisted suicides.
In earlier cases, the center defended an enormous cross placed on a hill outside San Diego and Nativity scenes in Florida and New York. It sued the Ann Arbor schools for providing benefits for same-sex partners. And in one of its most controversial cases, it defended an anti-abortion group that ran an online list of doctors it said should be stopped from providing abortions. The doctors said the group was threatening them and their families. Mr. Thompson said in an interview it was "a very important free speech case."
To find its first intelligent design case, the lawyers went around the country looking for a school board willing to withstand a lawsuit. In May 2000, Robert Muise, one of the lawyers, traveled to Charleston, W.Va., to persuade the school board there to buy the intelligent design textbook Of Pandas and People and teach it in science class.
Mr. Muise told the board in Charleston that it would undoubtedly be sued if the district taught intelligent design, but that the center would mount a defense at no cost.
"We'll be your shields against such attacks," he told them at a school board meeting, a riff on the center's slogan, "The Sword and Shield for People of Faith." He said they could defend teaching intelligent design as a matter of academic freedom.
John Luoni, the former president of the Charleston school board, said he remembered listening to Mr. Muise and concluding: "It's not really a scientific theory. It's more of a religious theory. It should be taught if a church or a denomination believes in it, but I didn't think that religious viewpoint should be taught as part of a science class."
The board in West Virginia declined the center's offer. So did school districts in Michigan and Minnesota and a handful of other states, Mr. Muise and Mr. Thompson said.
But in Dover, the firm found willing partners when it contacted the school board in the summer of 2004 and promised it a first-class defense,
The Dover school board proceeded despite a memo from its lawyer, Stephen S. Russell, warning that if the board lost the case, they would have to pay its opponents legal fees - which according to the plaintiffs' lawyers exceeds $1 million. In the memorandum, revealed in court on Wednesday, Mr. Russell advised that opponents would have a strong case because board members had a lengthy public record of advocating "putting religion back in the schools."
Some of the proponents of intelligent design are also unhappy that the case went to court, and fear it could stop the movement in its infancy because some board members had a public record of advocating creationism, which the Supreme Court has twice ruled cannot be taught in public schools.
"The school district never consulted us and did the exact opposite of what we suggested," said John G. West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, an organization in the forefront of the intelligent design movement. "Frankly I don't even know if school board members know what intelligent design is. They and their supporters are trying to hijack intelligent design for their own purposes. They think they're sending signals in the culture wars."
Mr. Thompson, the Thomas More Center's chief counsel, said the case appealed to him because of its "national impact." Four months before the trial started, he said, he watched the movie Inherit the Wind, a drama about the Scopes evolution trial 80 years ago that helped turn the country against religious creationists and fundamentalists.
"It's only when you take the cases that are on the borderline that you can change the law," he said.
No matter how the Dover case turns out, the center is considering defending several teachers who are defying their school districts by teaching intelligent design.
"We're developing all this expertise in intelligent design," Mr. Thompson said. "We hope to use it."