End of the Road for Intelligent Design?

As readers are probably aware, the federal judge in the Dover, PA case ruled yesterday (Monday, December 19, 2005) that the school board’s action in trying to introduce intelligent design creationism (IDC) ideas into its science curriculum violates the Establishment Clause and is thus unconstitutional. In a previous posting where I discussed the constitutional issues, I said that I had expected this result. What I had not expected was that the judge’s ruling would be so sweeping and comprehensive. It went in detail through the history, the science, and the philosophy of science issues involved

Although it was written using judicial terminology, in essence it was the equivalent of a slap upside the head to the board that adopted the pro-IDC policy, saying in effect “How could you do such a stupid thing? Any idiot can see that intelligent design is a religious and not scientific notion. And you are liars, too!”

To recapitulate the key features of the case on which the judge based his ruling, the Dover school board had adopted a policy that, commencing January 2005, required teachers to read the following statement to students in the ninth grade biology class at Dover High School:

The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.

With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families. As a Standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on Standards-based assessments.

The science teachers refused to read this statement, saying:

You have indicated that students may ‘opt-out’ of this portion [the statement read to students at the beginning of the biology evolution unit] of the class and that they will be excused and monitored by an administrator. We respectfully exercise our right to ‘opt-out’ of the statement portion of the class. We will relinquish the classroom to an administrator and we will monitor our own students. This request is based upon our considered opinion that reading the statement violates our responsibilities as professional educators as set forth in the Code of Professional Practice and Conduct for Educators[.]


I believe that if I as the classroom teacher read the required statement, my students will inevitably (and understandably) believe that Intelligent Design is a valid scientific theory, perhaps on par with the theory of evolution. That is not true. To refer the students to ‘Of Pandas and People’ as if it is a scientific resource breaches my ethical obligation to provide them with scientific knowledge that is supported by recognized scientific proof or theory.

In light of the teachers’ refusal, school administrators became the ones to read the statement to students.

The concluding section of Judge Jones’ verdict is below, with the emphases added by me. I will comment on other aspects of the ruling later. (The plaintiffs are the parents who challenged the school board policy and the defendants are the school board.)

The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board’s ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.

Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

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 citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

To preserve the separation of church and state mandated by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and Art. I, § 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, we will enter an order permanently enjoining Defendants from maintaining the ID Policy in any school within the Dover Area School District, from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring teachers to refer to a religious, alternative theory known as ID. We will also issue a declaratory judgment that Plaintiffs’ rights under the Constitutions of the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have been violated by Defendants’ actions.

In later postings I will explore other features of the judge’s 139-page ruling. It provides a good history and analysis of the legal history of religious challenges to the teaching of evolution. Many of the issues he discusses will be familiar to readers of this blog because I have discussed them in the past. But the judge’s ruling brings a lot of that content together in one narrative.

Lesser known culture wars

The so-called ‘war on Christmas’ not making you angry enough? Here are some other culture wars that might be more appealing to you.


  1. catherine says

    Don’t you just love the phrase “breathtaking inanity”? Just love it. I want it on a poster.

    Mano, your blog has been one of the best things in an incredibly wretched year. Long may you blog.


  2. says


    You are right, it should be Dover school board. Thanks. I have corrected it.

    Imagine if they changed the name to Darwin school board. There’d probably be a riot…

  3. George Bohichik says

    As an avid book buyer and sporadic bookdealer, I especially appreciate the random curiosities (such as my book on phrenology, for example).

    So how could I resist a book from1926, entitled: Evolution, Genetics and Eugenics.

    In the chapter is reprinted this wonderful verse by L.G. Charlesworth (who I, unsuccessfully. googled):

    Oh the rising generation

    Has lost its veneration

    For the fables and the fancies of the old.

    In the study of Geology

    And the science of Biology

    Their hearts and heads I fear are growing cold.

    Since this dreadful evolution

    Has caused this revolution

    And geology has given us suck shocks,

    We*ll have our legislature

    Repeal the laws of nature

    And pass a law abolishing the Rocks.

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