DOVER, Pa. — In the beginning, members of the Dover Area School District 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 the teaching of "intelligent design" should also be required, arguing that 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 begins over the board's decision last year ordering that students be taught about intelligent design and flaws in Charles Darwin's theories.
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 that the stakes are high in the case, which has divided this small rural town about 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. The verdict, to be rendered by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, 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 intelligent-design contention is scientifically valid, or a Trojan horse designed to subvert Darwin's theories.
"We're fighting for the 1st 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 Dover school board was read to ninth-grade science students in January and will be read again this year. It reads in part:
"Because Darwin's theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in theory exist for which there is no evidence.... Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin.... With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind."
Several days after the board's 6-3 vote approving the intelligent-design resolution, the three dissenting members resigned in protest.
In November, two opposing slates will vie for seven open seats on the board: one backing the teaching of intelligent design, the other strongly opposed.
Board members and their allies also believe that freedoms are at stake. They have blasted the ACLU for seeking a "gag order" on what teachers can say.
"This issue is bubbling under the surface all over the country, but the Dover board had the courage of their convictions," said Richard Thompson, chief counsel for the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center. The center promotes and defends the religious freedoms of Christians, he said, and is handling the case pro bono.
If all this sounds eerily reminiscent of another case on evolution, it is.
Eighty years ago, the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tenn., tested the legality of a state law banning the teaching of evolution. That case, which inspired the play and the movie "Inherit the Wind," featured an epic courtroom confrontation between attorney Clarence Darrow, who argued against the law, and former Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who defended the statute. Although teacher John Scopes was convicted of violating the law, the state Supreme Court later overturned the verdict.
As in Dayton, Dover's politics have been roiled. The pages of area 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 the intelligent-design argument, is not supporting the Dover board.
"We oppose any effort to require the teaching of intelligent design," said John G. 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 appear 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 and attended Dover High School.