Intelligent Decision

Thursday, December 22, 2005

THE DECISION this week by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III declaring unconstitutional the Dover, Pa., school board's advocacy of "intelligent design" is not binding on any other jurisdiction. In practical terms it doesn't matter even in Dover, where voters recently tossed out all but one of the school board members responsible for ensuring that high school biology students get advised of this "alternative" to classical evolutionary theory. It is nonetheless an important decision, both because it exhaustively documents how the theory of intelligent design is not science but cleverly repackaged creationism and because it rightly insists that such a religion-infused idea has no place in public schools. It therefore represents a model for judicial consideration of the proliferating effort to use intelligent design to undermine the teaching of biology.

Advocates of intelligent design don't talk about God, and they use scientific-sounding language. But Judge Jones's opinion, all 139 pages of it, makes abundantly clear that intelligent design -- which posits that the complexity of natural life shows distinctive elements of design -- is nonetheless religious at its core. While its partisans do not identify who the designer is, they offer a supernatural explanation for natural phenomena, which is an essentially nonscientific approach -- untested and indeed untestable. Their texts contain much of the same argumentation, some of it quite distortional of evolutionary theory and science, as earlier work on "creation science." And the school board adopted its policy of reading students a disclaimer that posed intelligent design as an alternative to evolution after hearings at which board members repeatedly expressed religious motivations -- a fact that some of them tried to obscure at trial. "It is ironic," Judge Jones wrote, "that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the [intelligent design] Policy."

The separation of church and state does not tolerate the promulgation of religion in public schools. Case law has clarified that this restriction prevents jurisdictions both from prohibiting the teaching of evolution and from requiring the teaching of creationism as science alongside it. Judge Jones has taken an important additional step, holding that it also forbids the teaching of creationism masked in scientific lingo, even without overt references to God. If a school district adopts a policy of promoting a religious cosmology, however couched, in an effort to undermine science and thereby instill religious values, that policy must fall. As other jurisdictions contemplate similar acts of what Judge Jones calls "breathtaking inanity," this is a good principle for courts to follow.

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