December 20, 2005

Federal Court Strikes Down Intelligent Design Curriculum

District Court Contends that Dover, Pa., Challenge to Teaching Evolution is an Unconstitutional Endorsement of Religion

A federal district court judge ruled today that a Pennsylvania school board’s decision to include intelligent design in the high school science curriculum was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. The case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, was the first court test of intelligent design, which posits that life is too complex to have developed solely through random, evolutionary means.

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“This decision is a slam dunk for supporters of evolution and a real defeat for Darwin’s opponents,” says David Masci, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. “By ruling that it is unconstitutional to include intelligent design in classroom instruction, the district court has sent a strong warning to school boards across the country that may be considering finding a place for intelligent design in the science curriculum.”

A recent survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that there are deep religious and political differences over evolution and the origins of life. Overall, 60 percent believe that humans and other living things either have existed in their present form since the beginning of time or have evolved over time under the guidance of a Supreme Being. Most Americans (64%) also say they are open to the idea of teaching creationism along with evolution in the public schools.

In September, the Forum published an in-depth backgrounder which provides a legal and historical analysis of the important cases in the evolution debate. The backgrounder can be found at http://www.pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=116.

Also in September, the Forum hosted a discussion on Kitzmiller and the constitutionality of teaching intelligent design. The event featured Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation for Church and State, Mark Ryland of the Discovery Institute, David DeWolf of Gonzaga Law School and Hollyn Hollman of the Joint Baptist Committee. The full transcript of the discussion is available at http://www.pewforum.org/events/?EventID=84. More resources on the evolution/intelligent design debate are available on the Forum’s Web site at http://www.pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=114.

The Kitzmiller case was prompted by the Dover school board’s decision in October 2004 to have teachers read a lengthy disclaimer before students began learning about Darwinian evolution. The disclaimer stated, in part, that evolution was a “theory,” that “gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence,” and that “Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.” A number of area families with children in the public school system then sued the board, claiming that the new policy was unconstitutional.

In his lengthy decision, District Court Judge John E. Jones III ruled that intelligent design is not science, but “a religious argument” and “nothing less than the progeny of creationism.” Judge Jones noted that a 1987 Supreme Court decision, Edwards v. Aguillard, made it unconstitutional for public schools to teach creationism.

More specifically, Judge Jones ruled that because the school board singled out evolution for a disclaimer and introduced a religion-friendly alternative, “an objective student would view the disclaimer as a strong official endorsement of religion.” Moreover, Jones ruled, actions of the school board clearly show that they were motivated by a desire to “advance religion.” For these reasons, he wrote, the curriculum is an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state.

An appeal of the decision seems highly unlikely. All but one of the school board members who supported the curriculum change were voted out of office in local elections in November 2005. Their replacements do not support teaching intelligent design, and so have little incentive to continue fighting for the policy.