Parents in federal court Tuesday described an atmosphere of intimidation and anger when school board members in Dover, Pa., last year decided to require high school biology teachers to read a statement that casts doubt on the theory of evolution.
Bryan Rehm, a parent who also taught physics at Dover High School, testified of continual pressure from board members not to "teach monkeys-to-man evolution." He said that the board required teachers to watch a film critical of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and that board members talked openly of teaching creationism alongside evolution.
The atmosphere became so heated that neighbors began to call him an "atheist with . . . a lot of words added on to it," Rehm said. He said that "it was turning into a real zoo" and that students were quarreling about evolution.
Rehm is one of 11 people from Dover, a small town south of Harrisburg, who want to block their school board from requiring the reading of that four-paragraph statement that criticizes evolutionary theory. The statement notes that "intelligent design" offers an alternative theory for the origin and evolution of life -- namely, that life in all of its complexity could not have arisen without the help of an intelligent hand.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and Americans United for Separation of Church and State are representing the parents, along with lawyers from Pepper Hamilton LLP.
Advocates of intelligent design, who include a small band of scientists and philosophers, are silent on whether that intelligent hand belongs to God or perhaps some other being. "It will be clear that this isn't about religion," said Allan Bonsell, 45, a school board member who has attended the opening two days of the trial. "We're not teaching intelligent design. We're making the kids aware of it."
Sworn testimony as well as two newspaper accounts note that Bonsell and other board members dismissed the separation of church and state as a myth, and initially favored equally teaching creationism and evolution. Bonsell and the board members have denied making these statements or have said they were misquoted. The board meetings were taped, but the tapes apparently were destroyed.
U.S. District Judge John E. Jones directed reporters with two local newspapers, the York Dispatch and the York Daily Record, to testify about what was said in open meetings. The two reporters have declined, citing reportorial privilege, and could face penalties including jail time on Wednesday.
The board's lawyers have framed the case as one of free inquiry. They note that college classes -- including those taught by a key witness for the plaintiffs -- often make students aware of intelligent design, if only to dismiss it. Why, they ask, shouldn't the same hold for high school?
"Compromises have been made -- this is not being taught in class," said Richard Thompson, whose Thomas More Law Center represents the board. "We don't advocate teaching intelligent design at this point."
Rehm had a different bottom line. Intelligent design, he said, is inherently religious -- a view shared by many scientists. And, he added: "Nine board members without degrees in science should not be dictating science curriculum."