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A Board Adapts After Voters Select

The intelligent design debate continues after eight proponents on a school panel are ousted.

November 15, 2005|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

DOVER, Pa. — The hard-fought school election was over, and there was hope that the scars from a nationally watched battle between evolution and intelligent design in public schools would begin to heal at Monday's meeting of the Dover school board.

But bitterness persisted over last week's results, in which eight candidates opposed to the teaching of intelligent design in this rural community narrowly defeated eight incumbents, who had included it as part of the science curriculum.

The clash took place as a federal lawsuit over the board's decision last year was being argued in a court in Harrisburg, north of Dover. A decision in the case, which pitted the theory of evolution against a rival belief about the origins of life, is expected next month.

"Intelligent design isn't finished here, it isn't finished anywhere," said Alan Bonsell, an outgoing board member, as he left Monday's meeting, his last. Several hundred people, who filled a school cafeteria, applauded politely when he said the board had "worked hard" to bring Dover students "a much better future."

The eight victors, who sat in a group, had a different message: Bernadette Reinking, a newly elected board member, said in an interview that "Dover needs to heal and put the divisions behind it, because we have to get back to our lives. We have to let the bitterness die down from this battle and focus on our students."

She added, however, that "nobody ever believed this board should have tried to impose its beliefs on people. And we're certainly not going to do that now." The new board, she said, was likely to consider teaching intelligent design in a social studies or philosophy class -- but not as part of the curriculum in ninth-grade biology.

The issue surfaced last year, when the former board voted that a one-minute statement about intelligent design should be read in biology classes at Dover High School. It marked the first time a school board had mandated teaching this belief in a science course.

Proponents of intelligent design believe organisms are too complex to have developed by chance, and that there must have been a "designer" who created life. Some believe the designer is God, although intelligent design makes no reference to this.

Under the theory of evolution, which is widely taught in public schools, life evolved through a process of natural selection and random mutations. The theory makes no statement one way or another on the issue of a supernatural agent or divine purpose.

After the board acted, 11 parents sued the Dover Area School District to block the policy, saying intelligent design was a thinly disguised version of creationism, a Bible-based belief about the origins of life. They contended that teaching intelligent design in science classes would violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

The defendants argued that they placed intelligent design in the ninth-grade science curriculum to give students exposure to a variety of viewpoints. A ruling in the nonjury case will be made by U.S. Judge John E. Jones III.

As the trial began in October, the conflict was heating up in the political arena. Rival slates of candidates were formed over the issue and lawn signs appeared throughout the community; debates in local churches sometimes grew intense. On election day, partisans on both sides worked furiously to turn out supporters.

Eight seats were at stake; the term of a ninth board member had not expired and was not up for a vote.

"It was a tough political struggle from the beginning," Bonsell said. "And everybody had their eye on the lawsuit. It kind of drowned out a lot of other news."

The plaintiffs were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, and a victory could force the Dover school board to pay hefty legal fees. Fearing such an outcome, one outgoing board member urged his colleagues Monday night to abandon the intelligent design policy, especially in view of the election.

His motion died for lack of a second.

"I am compelled to make this proposal on behalf of the voters, who have spoken," said David Napierskie. "While I believe in intelligent design, it is clearly in the best interests of our community to move forward.... There is sufficient reason to revoke this policy and to try and dismiss the case. The original lawsuit has become meaningless."

Both sides seemed weary from the political struggle. In last week's election, the eight victorious Democratic candidates got 21,265 votes; the losing Republican side polled 20,197 votes. The outcome was notable in a community where 70% of the voters are Republicans; the area voted for President Bush by a 3-to-1 margin.

"I think we're seeing a new, more liberal view in Dover, at least as it involves education," said Joy Lambert, who is studying for an education degree at nearby Millersville University. "We have to consider all kinds of religious views that students have, not just one....We also have to be careful about separating church and state."

For some, however, the closeness of the election meant that the divisions would not disappear soon. Donald Bonsell, Alan's father, was openly skeptical that intelligent design had suffered a serious setback.

"What happened here is just the beginning," he said. "Intelligent design is going to spread throughout the country. It's a scientific belief, and people all over the nation are going to realize this."

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