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'Intelligent Design' Trial Arguments End

November 05, 2005|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Attorneys clashed in a federal courtroom Friday as a landmark trial over the teaching of intelligent design and evolution came to an end.

In final arguments, both sides said they had waged the six-week legal battle to defend children's right to learn and think critically about science in public schools.

The case grew out of a decision last year by school board members in Dover, Pa., to tell biology students about intelligent design -- the idea that living organisms are so biologically complex, they must have been created by a "designer." Many backers of the concept say they believe that designer is God.

Eleven parents sued the Dover Area School District to overturn the decision. They argued that intelligent design had religious overtones and was a thinly disguised attack on Charles Darwin's widely accepted theory of evolution.

"Intelligent design does not belong in a high school biology class.... It is an inherently religious doctrine that is a modern form of creationism, and this shell game has to end," said Eric Rothschild, representing the plaintiffs. "This board wanted to trash evolution, not to teach it. It wanted to impose its religious views on others."

Patrick T. Gillen, representing the school board, called intelligent design "the next big paradigm shift in scientific thinking" and said the Dover school board merely wanted "to teach children how to think, not what to think. This was all about learning."

A ruling by U.S. Judge John E. Jones III in the nonjury trial is expected next month.

At issue is a fourparagraph statement that the board said should be read to biology students. The statement says that there are "gaps" in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and that intelligent design offers a different explanation of life's origins. The statement adds that "the reference book 'Of Pandas and People' is available for students" who want to learn more about intelligent design.

The plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, argued that Dover school board members acted for religious reasons. They also contended that intelligent design was no different from creationism, a Bible-based view of the origins of life that the U.S. Supreme Court banned from public schools in 1987.

Defendants were represented by the Thomas More Law Center, a legal group that promotes and defends the religious freedoms of Christians. They argued that school board members, who were the first in the country to make intelligent design part of the curriculum, had expressed valid personal doubts about evolution.

William Buckingham, a former member who backed the intelligent design plan, said in one school board meeting that the theory should be taught because "nearly 2,000 years ago someone died on a cross for us. Shouldn't we have the courage to stand up for him?"

During the trial, Buckingham denied having made those comments, which were reported in two local newspapers.

Plaintiffs then played a tape of a local TV news broadcast in which Buckingham said he did not want to approve a standard biology textbook for Dover students because "the book is laced with Darwinism. It's OK to teach Darwin, but you have to balance it with something else, like creationism."

Lawyers disagreed over the merits of intelligent design. Gillen said the academics who embraced it were "in the minority, like all discoverers." He added that "intelligent design is science; it is not religion. Evolution is just a theory, not a fact."

Rothschild, however, noted that most scientists rejected intelligent design, because it was a subjective idea that had not been tested or proved in a scientific setting.

" 'If it looks designed, it must be designed,' " he said, mocking the theory. "If that's the case, natural science should be retired. Because everything looks designed.... [Proponents] do nothing and then challenge other scientists to shoot them down."

As the trial ended, both sides expressed confidence.

Tammy Kitzmiller, the mother of two Dover High students and a plaintiff, told reporters on the courthouse steps: "I'm gratified we did this. We never felt intelligent design was science, and it doesn't belong in class, especially in a biology class."

Several feet away, defendants' lawyer Robert J. Muise said: "We've brought this case back to earth. It's all about a harmless four-paragraph statement and a book that students were told they could read. Nothing more."

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