HARRISBURG, Pa. – The future of high school biology in one central Pennsylvania school district, and perhaps ultimately in the rest of the country, now rests in the hands of a federal court judge, as a landmark trial on the teaching of intelligent design came to a close here Friday.

Judge John E. Jones III said he will decide by year’s end whether the Dover Area School District and its board violated the constitutional ban on advancing religious belief in public schools by requiring 9th grade biology students to be informed of intelligent design, or ID. A concept critical of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, ID is being considered by school boards around the country.

Contending that intelligent design is creationism in disguise, 11 parents of Dover students sued the district and the board, claiming that the requirement is religiously motivated, thus violates the constitutional separation of church and state and breaches the Supreme Court’s 1987 prohibition of teaching creationism in public schools. Creationism adheres to the Genesis account of creation in the Bible.

Emerging around 1987 and championed by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank, intelligent design makes no mention of the Bible or the divine. It presents itself as a scientific theory, positing that some aspects of life, unexplained by evolution, are best attributed to an unnamed intelligent designer.

Jones essentially will rule on whether ID is a scientific theory or a religious belief.

His decision is binding only on the parties concerned but may have a persuasive effect elsewhere in the country, according to lawyers. Attorneys for the defense have said they eventually may take the case to the Supreme Court.

Represented by a legal team assembled by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, plaintiffs’ lawyers on Friday concentrated on linking ID to creationism, discrediting it as a scientific theory and establishing the school board’s religious motivation in introducing it into the curriculum.

“In order for intelligent design to be considered a science, the definition of science must be broadened to include supernatural causes?” plaintiffs’ attorney Stephen Harvey asked final defense witness Scott Minnich.

“Correct,” answered Minnich, a Discovery Institute fellow and a microbiologist at the University of Idaho.

In closing arguments, plaintiffs’ lawyer Eric Rothschild accused many of the school board members of lying to the court. He played a television tape in which former board member William Buckingham said, “My opinion is it’s OK to teach Darwin, but you have to balance it with something else, like creationism.” Buckingham, who long denied making the statement, told the court he “misspoke” when he used the word creationism.

“The evidence shows intelligent design is science … not religion,” said Patrick Gillen of the Christian-oriented Thomas More Law Center, which provided the defense. He said there was no religious purpose or effect of the curricular requirement.

In a lighter moment, Gillen noted that it was the 40th day and night of the trial, a reference to Noah’s biblical flood of 40 days and 40 nights. “I’d like to know if your honor did that on purpose,” he asked Jones.

“Mr. Gillen, I’d have to say that it is an interesting coincidence. But it was not by design,” said Jones, as the courtroom erupted in laughter and applause.


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