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Dover dilemma

Science | ACLU sides with censorship in a case challenging school board policy to promote intelligent design

Issue: "Miers doesn't fit the mold," Oct. 15, 2005

In 1925, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) came to the defense of Dayton, Tenn., teacher John Scopes, calling prohibitions on the teaching of evolution unconstitutional. On Sept. 26, ACLU lawyers lined up on the opposite side of free speech, arguing against the Dover, Pa., school board in a lawsuit set to outlaw classroom discussion of intelligent design (ID).

Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District centers on a curriculum modification that requires ninth-grade biology teachers to name ID as an alternate theory of origins prior to teaching evolution. Teachers must also refer students to an ID textbook available in the school library.

Backed by the ACLU, eight families from the district have sued to change that policy. A ruling from the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania is expected in late October or early November-though any decision will likely be appealed.

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Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, calls the lawsuit "probably the most important legal situation of creation and evolution in the last 18 years," and predicts that it will have "a significant impact on what happens in American public school education." On the other side Seattle's Discovery Institute, the leading intellectual force for ID, has filed an amicus brief from 85 scientists that urges Judge John E. Jones III to protect academic freedom.

The ACLU wants to show that the school board acted out of religious motivation-and one of its witnesses, former school board member Carol H. Brown, testified that board meetings resembled an "old-time Christian tent revival." The Thomas More Law Center, a Michigan firm dedicated to protecting Christian beliefs, is defending the school board, and that connection has helped some reporters to cast Kitzmiller v. Dover as a replay of the Scopes Monkey Trial-a battle between science and religion.

Those ID scientists who base their conclusions on observable nature, not Scripture, do not like such battle lines. School board representatives would not comment while the trial continues, but Discovery Institute fellow John West called the board's policy well-intentioned yet "misguided." He said several other school boards around the country have successfully added scientific criticisms of Darwinism to their curriculum without provoking lawsuits. But, he added, "The reason why scientists are gravitating toward [ID] is because of the evidence. A court decision is not going to overturn the evidence."

This trial has no jury: It's in the hands of Judge Jones, who may rule narrowly on Kitzmiller v. Dover without setting broader policy on what qualifies as science, and in that case the effects of his decision would be minor. Yet the court proceedings already are drawing greater attention to the primary claim of ID that time plus chance cannot account for the complexity of life.

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