December 2020 Church & State Magazine | Featured

A December 2005 federal court ruling against the teaching of intelligent design in public schools was so decisive that there have since been no significant courtroom battles to overturn the decision – though not for lack of trying by those who want the religious creation belief taught alongside evolution.

This month marks the 15th anniversary of the ruling in the Kitzmil­ler v. Dover Area School District case. The legal challenge was brought by Americans United and the ACLU of Pennsylvania in conjunction with Pepper Hamilton law firm on behalf of 11 parents in Dover, Pa., who objected to their children being taught in science class that evolution “is not a fact” and that intelligent design is an “explanation of life that differs from Darwin’s view.”

The policy was ordered by a school board majority that wanted children to be taught, inaccurately, about “gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.”

Intelligent design is a watered-down version of the fundamentalist Christian concept of creationism. Known as ID, intelligent design downplays some of the more divisive claims of traditional creationism – that God created the earth only 6,000 years ago and that dinosaurs and people lived side by side. Instead, ID proponents claim that humans are so complex that a higher power must have purposefully designed them. Advocates claim that this designer isn’t necessarily the Christian god. They say intelligent design isn’t a purely religious concept and should be included in public school curricula.

But intelligent design isn’t science – it can’t be tested or proven by any scientific method, making it unfit for public school science classes. Author and Southeastern Louisiana University philosophy professor Barbara Forrest, an expert witness on behalf of Americans United in the Kitzmiller case, called intelligent design “creationism’s Trojan horse” – a way for creationists and Christian nationalists to introduce an alternative to evolution into public school curricula and potentially reopen the door to teaching creationism. That door was closed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1987 case Edwards v. Aguillard, in which the court struck down a Louisiana law that required public schools to offer “balanced treatment” between evolution and creationism.

Back in Dover, a south-central Pennsylvania town of about 2,000 people located midway between the state capital of Harrisburg and the Mason-Dixon line, the controversy over the teaching of evolution arose in summer 2004 when the school district needed to buy new high school science textbooks. Anti-evolution board members objected to the well-respected textbook Biology because, in the words of one member, it was “laced with Darwinism.”

After several months of public debate that included falsehoods proclaimed by the same board member that the U.S. was founded as an officially Christian nation and that the Constitution doesn’t guarantee church-state separation, the divided school board agreed to buy the textbooks. But they also accepted the donation of 50 copies of the intelligent design pseudo-textbook Of Pandas and People and passed a resolution requiring science teachers to read an anti-evolution proclamation to students.

The decision divided the community, as entangling religion, government and public education often does. The majority of Dover science teachers objected to reciting the proclamation, so administrators had to read it instead. Science professors at several Pennsylvania universities denounced the policy, many Religious Right figures and groups lauded it, and the case generated international media attention and several books. Four pro-science Dover board members resigned in protest and were replaced by board appointees who supported intelligent design – only to have voters sweep many of them out of office a year later and elect pro-science representatives who promptly reversed the district’s policy on teaching intelligent design around the same time a decision was rendered in the case.

On Dec. 20, 2005, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III issued a forceful, 139-page decision that declared Dover’s intelligent design policy to be an unconstitutional violation of      students’ and families’ religious freedom. Jones went on to declare intelligent design an unequivocally relig­i­ous, unscientific concept that doesn’t belong in public schools, and he excoriated board members for adopting such a divisive policy and for lying about their religious motivations.

“We have been presented with a wealth of evidence which reveals that the District’s purpose was to advance creationism, an inherently religious view, both by introducing it directly under the label ID and by disparaging the scientific theory of evolution, so that creationism would gain credence by default as the only apparent alternative to evolution,” wrote Jones, an appointee of former President George W. Bush.

“The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy,” wrote Jones. “It is ironic 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 ID Policy.”

Jones wasn’t done: “The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.”

Americans United Legal Director Richard B. Katskee, who as AU’s assistant legal director in 2005 was one of the principal lawyers arguing the case, reflected for Church & State on the significance of the now 15-year-old opinion.

“The intelligent design movement depends on subterfuge – getting people to think that a religious view (and one that is flatly rejected by many majority and minority faiths, by the way) is actually science rather than a matter of belief. The Kitzmiller case, the court’s decision and the media coverage of it across the country and around the world thoroughly exposed intelligent design for what it actually is,” Katskee said.

“While there have been many attempts in state legislatures, boards of education and local school districts since 2005 to get intelligent design into the public schools, they’ve all failed – decisively,” Katskee said. “It’s just not possible after Kitzmiller to pull the wool over people’s eyes for long. That’s what a great legal case and a great judicial decision can do to protect the rights of all of us not to have government force religious beliefs on us that we don’t share.”

Legal challenges involving the teaching of creationism or intelligent design in public schools have been few and far between in the last 15 years – and haven’t tended to last long. For instance, mere days after Jones ruled in the Kitzmiller case, a California public high school launched a four-week elective course called “Philosophy of Intelligent Design.” Americans United attorneys immediately interceded on behalf of several El Tejon Unified School District families; a lawsuit filed on their behalf was settled within weeks when the district agreed to cancel the class.

In 2008, an Ohio public school district fired a teacher after an investigation determined he’d taught creationism and intelligent design in lieu of science. He also was accused of proselytizing students, displaying the Bible and Ten Commandments in his classroom and, stunningly, using a Tesla coil to brand a cross on a student’s arm.

In a suit brought by the teacher, John Freshwater, the Ohio Supreme Court determined his free speech rights had not been violated (AU filed an amicus brief in support of Mount Vernon City School District); the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case in 2014.

The teaching of creationism was just one of many religious freedom violations Americans United found at Bossier Parish Schools in Louisiana, along with school events being held at churches or involving prayers as part of the official program; extensive promotion of religion within school athletic programs; teachers proselytizing in classrooms; and religious displays in classrooms and offices. The case AU filed on behalf of several Bossier families was settled in less than a year when, in January 2019, the school board agreed to end its coercive practices. A year earlier, the ACLU had settled a similar lawsuit at neighboring Webster Parish School District.

Instances of intelligent design being taught in public schools tend to be sporadic, and often hard to track district by district. The more coordinated efforts to undermine science education have happened at the state level, either in state legislatures or state boards of education.

A fairly frequent trend Americans United has monitored over the last decade or so has been the introduction of state legislation that would require public schools to “teach the controversies” of evolution. Of course, for scientists, there are no controversies – evolution is “the only tested, comprehensive scientific explanation for the nature of the biological world today that is supported by overwhelming evidence and widely accepted by the scientific community,” noted the book Science, Evolution, and Creationism, the most recent edition of which was published in 2017 by the National Academies of Science and Institute of Medicine. “The ideas supported by creationists, in contrast, are not supported by evidence and are not accepted by the scientific community.” 

Nonetheless, some state politicians have tried to insert the anti-science language into public school curricula. In 2019, for instance, AU ally the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), which closely monitors trends in science education, tracked anti-science bills percolating in Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina and South Dakota. These bills included language that undermined evolution, climate change, or both, according to Glenn Branch, NCSE’s deputy director. (You can read an interview with Branch on page 12 of this issue.)

In part because state legislatures were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, not many anti-science bills were introduced or advanced this year. In January, a South Dakota bill that would have required teachers to help students understand the “strengths and weaknesses of scientific information” was tabled and died. Although evolution wasn’t spec­i­fically mentioned, the “strengths and weaknesses” language is akin to “teach the controversies” – code words meant to signal that teachers should encourage students not to believe in evolution.

At least one state legislature was able to take pro-science action this year. In Oklahoma, new science standards that include straightforward, scientific treatment of evolution (a word largely omitted from the previous standards) and climate change were approved by default when the legislature adjourned without voting on them, according to NCSE. The new standards were approved by the state board of education and by the state House, but the Senate adjourned before considering them. State law requires the standards to be enacted if the legislatures fails to act on them within 30 days of their submission, according to NCSE.

North Carolina and Pennsylvania are two other states in the news this year over their educational standards. In North Carolina, a teacher group called Red4EdNC raised the alarm at the beginning of the year over proposed social studies standards that, among other problems, omitted the Paleolithic period from sixth-grade world history classes. “Beginning with the Neolithic Era means the Paleolithic era and the origins of man will not be studied in NC schools,” the group wrote. “This is very problematic.” The standards have not been finalized; a new draft appears to include the Paleolithic period in the history course.

Back in Dover Area School District’s home state of Pennsylvania, state education officials are in the process of updating the state’s science education standards. While long overdue – last updated in 2002 – Pennsylvania’s science standards are among the oldest in the nation, according to the York Dispatch – the overhaul could open the door to controversy. Attempts to update the standards failed a decade ago, and the review includes consideration of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) – an attempt to improve and standardize science education nationwide that has at times been controversial in part because of its inclusion of evolution and climate change.

The NGSS science standards have met with the most resistance in states with Republican legislatures, which Pennsylvania has, though the Dispatch noted Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has voiced support for the overhaul. Addressing climate change can be especially thorny in states like Pennsylvania with a prominent fossil fuel production industry, which contributes to climate change. The legislature technically could attempt to block or delay any standards the state education department approves, though Wolf likely could veto any such legislation, the Dispatch reported.

A draft of the standards was proposed in September and now is available for public comment. Jeff Remington, a middle school science teacher involved in the draft, told the Pennsylvania Capital-Star the proposed guidelines follow NGSS principles while tailoring some aspects to reflect “Pennsylvania context.” He was hopeful the legislature will approve the new standards once they’re finalized by the state board of education; the hope is to implement them during the 2024-25 school year.

As decisive as the Kitzmiller victory was, the past 15 years have made clear that parents, educators and supporters of church-state separation can’t drop their guard when it comes to ensuring public schoolchildren are receiving a secular education that teaches sound science, not religion.

The words of Tammy Kitzmiller, the lead plaintiff in the case, are as accurate now as when she said them in 2005: “People need to keep an eye on this. They need to keep their science classes straight and need to keep the school focused on science in the science classroom.”