Dover, Pa. In the beginning, members of the Dover Area School Board wrangled over what should be required in their high school biology curriculum.
Some were adamant that science teachers should stick with the widely taught theory of evolution and random selection. Others said teaching the theory of intelligent design should also be required, saying certain elements of life, like cell structure, are best explained by an intelligent cause.
The debate had strong religious overtones.
"Nearly 2,000 years ago someone died on a cross for us," said board member William Buckingham, who urged his colleagues to include intelligent design in ninth-grade science classes. "Shouldn't we have the courage to stand up for him?"
Today, a trial will begin over the board's decision last year ordering that students be taught about intelligent design and flaws in Charles Darwin's teachings.
Several parents, fearing the intrusion of religion into public schooling, filed a lawsuit to block the policy, backed by American Civil Liberties Union attorneys.
Activists on both sides believe stakes are high in the case, which has divided this small rural town 100 miles west of Philadelphia.
The proceedings in a Harrisburg federal court will be the first legal challenge to the mandatory teaching of intelligent design, which is championed by a growing number of Christian fundamentalists. And the verdict, to be rendered by U.S. Judge John E. Jones, could have a profound impact on America's cultural wars over religion and its role in public life.
Witnesses are expected to debate whether the theory is scientifically valid, or a Trojan Horse designed to subvert the theories of Charles Darwin.
"We're fighting for the First Amendment, the separation of church and state and the integrity of schools," said Philadelphia attorney Eric Rothschild, who is teaming up with a battery of Pennsylvania ACLU lawyers to argue the case. "This trial should decide whether a school board can impose its religious views on other students."
The statement on intelligent design approved by the board was read to ninth-grade science students in January and will be read again this year.
The pages of local newspapers have been filled with letters pro and con. And the national media have increasingly focused on the case. But there is one notable voice missing from the fray. The Discovery Institute, an influential Seattle-based organization that backs intelligent design, is not supporting the Dover school board.
"We oppose any effort to require the teaching of intelligent design," said Dr. John West, senior fellow at the institute. "This is a sideshow where politicians are trying to hijack and mandate it," he said, adding that the institute is also "appalled" that the ACLU has attempted to block the teaching of intelligent design with a "gag order."
Residents of Dover seem as sharply divided as the school board. The only thing they seem to agree on is that the growing media coverage has become tiresome.
"I wish it would all go away, to tell you the truth," said Jeff Raffensberger, who runs a convenience store next to a gas station, and attended Dover High School.