Harrisburg, Pa. — "Intelligent design" cannot be mentioned in biology classes in a Pennsylvania public school district, a federal judge said today, ruling in one of the biggest courtroom clashes on evolution since the 1925 Scopes trial.
Dover Area School Board members violated the Constitution when they ordered that its biology curriculum must include the notion that life on Earth was produced by an unidentified intelligent cause, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III said. Several members repeatedly lied to cover their motives even while professing religious beliefs, he said.
The school board policy, adopted in October 2004, was believed to have been the first of its kind in the nation.
"The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy," Jones wrote.
The board's attorneys had said members were seeking to improve science education by exposing students to alternatives to Charles Darwin's theory that evolution develops through natural selection. Intelligent-design proponents argue that the theory cannot fully explain the existence of complex life forms.
Excerpts from 'Intelligent Design' Ruling
Excerpts from U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III's ruling that struck down a school board's decision to require biology students in Dover, Pa., to hear about the concept of "intelligent design":
"We find that the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to a pretext for the Board's real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom, in violation of the Establishment Clause."
"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."
"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 not 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."
"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."
The plaintiffs challenging the policy argued that intelligent design amounts to a secular repackaging of creationism, which the courts have already ruled cannot be taught in public schools. The judge agreed.
"We find that the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to a pretext for the Board's real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom," he wrote in his 139-page opinion.
The Dover policy required students to hear a statement about intelligent design before ninth-grade biology lessons on evolution. The statement said Charles Darwin's theory is "not a fact" and has inexplicable "gaps." It refers students to an intelligent-design textbook, "Of Pandas and People," for more information.
Jones wrote that he wasn't saying the intelligent design concept shouldn't be studied and discussed, saying its advocates "have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors."
But, he wrote, "our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom."
The controversy divided the community and galvanized voters to oust eight incumbent school board members who supported the policy in the Nov. 8 school board election.
Said the judge: "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."
The board members were replaced by a slate of eight opponents who pledged to remove intelligent design from the science curriculum.
Eric Rothschild, the lead attorney for the families who challenged the policy, called the ruling "a real vindication for the parents who had the courage to stand up and say there was something wrong in their school district."
Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., which represented the school board, did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.
The dispute is the latest chapter in a long-running debate over the teaching of evolution dating back to the famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, in which Tennessee biology teacher John T. Scopes was fined $100 for violating a state law that forbade teaching evolution. The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed his conviction on a technicality, and the law was repealed in 1967.
Jones heard arguments in the fall during a six-week trial in which expert witnesses for each side debated intelligent design's scientific merits. Other witnesses, including current and former school board members, disagreed over whether creationism was discussed in board meetings months before the curriculum change was adopted.
The case is among at least a handful that have focused new attention on the teaching of evolution in the nation's schools.
Earlier this month, a federal appeals court in Georgia heard arguments over whether evolution disclaimer stickers placed in a school system's biology textbooks were unconstitutional. A federal judge in January ordered Cobb County school officials to immediately remove the stickers, which called evolution a theory, not a fact.
In November, state education officials in Kansas adopted new classroom science standards that call the theory of evolution into question.