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A Fault Line for 'Intelligent Design'

January 12, 2006|Louis Sahagun and Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writers

LEBEC, Calif. — Tucked in the raw folds of the Tehachapi Mountains, 63 miles north of Los Angeles and a time warp away in ambience, this town is not used to being the center of attention.

But this far-flung place, one of half a dozen close-knit communities in these mountains, has become the latest focal point in the national debate over teaching "intelligent design" in public schools.

Usually, big news in the region is heavy snow shutting down Interstate 5. There are 15 houses of worship, all Christian, and many folks wear their religion on their bumper stickers. But plenty of big-city newcomers, who commute to jobs in Bakersfield and Los Angeles, prefer a solid gap between religion and the classroom.

The San Andreas fault literally cuts through town, and right here "red state is slamming up against blue state like tectonic plates," said Patric Hedlund, managing editor of the Mountain Enterprise, a local weekly.

"The people here are grappling with fundamental issues of free speech and separation of church and state," she said. "It's one of those divine moments where everybody is right, and we have to find out what the rules are."

Outsiders know this region as the Grapevine. Lebec, the place with the post office, was named after a 19th century pioneer killed by a grizzly bear. The local chamber of commerce refers to Lebec, Gorman, Frazier Park and other north Tehachapi hamlets as the "Mountain Communities." Locals call it "the hill."

As they ruminate and wrangle among themselves, residents feel swamped.

The TV news crews and their satellite trucks began prowling the rugged hills not long after word spread of a lawsuit filed Tuesday by 11 parents against El Tejon Unified School District, the first legal challenge to the teaching of intelligent design in California.

At the district office, secretaries say at least three dozen interview requests have poured in for Supt. John Wight, who was at a conference and unavailable for comment.

The hullabaloo erupted after disgruntled parents joined with Americans United for Separation of Church and State to challenge a course at Frazier Mountain High School that they consider a minimally disguised endorsement of intelligent design.

School trustees approved the new course, "Philosophy of Design," at a special meeting on New Year's Day. Attorneys for the district suggested the course could survive a legal challenge if it was called "philosophy," the lawsuit said, and the board approved it on a 3-2 vote.

Hedlund's newspaper opened up five full pages to letters on both sides of the issue.

In one letter, Nicole Francus of Frazier Park called the course "an academic and legal disaster" that threatens to "take us all down a slippery slope."

"I'm not a biologist," countered Bob Anderson, another letter writer, "but the last time I looked, evolution was and is still an unproven scientific theory."

Intelligent design holds that some biological systems are so complex they could not have evolved through random mutations, as Darwin theorized, but must have sprung from the work of a larger master plan.

The course, which began Jan. 3, is scheduled to run for one month. The teacher is Sharon Lemburg, a special education instructor and the wife of a minister for the local Assembly of God Church, which supports fundamentalist Christian tenets about creationism.

An initial course description, which was distributed to students and their families last month, said "the class will take a close look at evolution as a theory and will discuss the scientific, biological and biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin's philosophy is not rock solid."

"Did God guide me to do this?" Lemburg asked, during an interview on the porch of her log house. "I would hope so."

Most of the reaction she's received has come from supporters or the media, with their e-mails and phone calls falling into three categories: "We support you, we're praying for you and ... can we have you on our show?"

"It's scary," Lemburg said. "I just want to teach. I'm not out for big publicity."

Supporters of intelligent design lost a court challenge in Dover, Pa., last month that both sides considered a test case. Now the spotlight has shifted to the Tehachapis.

It's a region that is at once isolated and at the crossroads of the world, perched off bustling I-5 between Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley. Towns such as Lebec and Gorman -- awash with fast-food joints, gas stations and tow truck operators -- serve as pit stops. But Frazier Park and Pinion Pines and Lake of the Woods rarely get a visit.

In addition to a bumper crop of churches, the region has a high number of home-schooled children, according to Hedlund.

About 12,000 people live in the area, and Frazier Mountain High School's cluster of squat, concrete-gray buildings are home to fewer than 500 students.

Jeremy Hurst, a 15-year-old sophomore, is caught in the crossfire in town and at home.

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