Harrisburg, Pa. Experts on both sides of the debate over whether public schools should teach "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution - a question already before a federal court - sparred in front of a state legislative panel Monday.
The House Subcommittee on Basic Education heard testimony on a bill that would allow local school boards to mandate that science lessons include intelligent design, a concept that holds the universe must have been created by an unspecified guiding force because it is so complex.
The legislation is sponsored by only a dozen lawmakers, and its prospects of passing the General Assembly are unclear.
But a federal judge will consider the issue this fall, when a lawsuit against the Dover Area School District goes to trial. The suit alleges the school board violated the constitutional separation of church and state when it voted in October to require ninth-graders to hear about intelligent design during evolution lessons in biology class.
Critics argue that intelligent design is a secular variation of creationism, the biblical-based view that regards God as the creator of life.
Michael J. Behe, a biology professor at Lehigh University, told the subcommittee that intelligent design has no religious underpinnings.
Some lawmakers struggled to understand Behe's explanations.
"I've always viewed evolution as sort of the ultimate design. It would change and adapt and accommodate to whatever the situation was," said Rep. P. Michael Sturla, D-Lancaster. "When did the intelligent design occur, in your theory?"
Behe had no answer.
"Questions like, 'When did the designing take place?' ... are all good questions. We'd love to have answers for them, but they are separate questions from the question, 'Was this designed in the first place?"' Behe said.
John Calvert, a retired attorney representing intelligent-design advocates who want more criticism of evolution in Kansas' science standards, said he supports the Pennsylvania bill but suggested it be revised so that teachers can cover more alternatives to evolution.
The American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups that filed the federal lawsuit, contends that allowing intelligent design to be taught would undermine the state's science standards, which specify the teaching of evolution.