Editor’s Note: 2022 marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. To celebrate this milestone anniversary, Church & State is profiling important figures in the life of the organization throughout the year. This month, we’re featuring a Q&A with Tammy Kitzmiller, lead plaintiff in one of AU’s most important legal victories.
Dover, Pa., a normally sleepy town of about 2,000 in the south-central part of the state, seemed an unlikely focal point for international attention, but that’s exactly what the community got in 2005.
The previous year, the town school board had voted to introduce “intelligent design” (ID) into the local public schools. Under the policy, the Dover Area School District required its science teachers to read students a statement in ninth-grade biology class telling them that biological evolution is a “theory” with “gaps … for which there is no evidence.” The statement encouraged students to explore intelligent design as an alternative, and school libraries were salted with an ID book called Of Pandas and People.
Adoption of the policy sparked an immediate backlash. Science teachers in the district refused to read the statement, leaving it to administrators to take on the task. At the same time, national organizations, including Americans United, wrote to the board urging its members to change course. AU pointed out that ID is a religious concept with no grounding in science. Citing court precedent, the group noted that the board was opening itself up to a lawsuit.
Efforts to resolve the matter outside of court failed, and Americans United joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the National Center for Science Education and the law firm of Pepper Hamilton to challenge the teaching of ID in federal court.
The suit was filed in December 2004 on behalf of a group of parents in the district. After some legal jockeying, the case went to trial on September 26, 2005, before U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III with AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee (then assistant legal director) leading the AU legal team.
On December 20, 2005, Jones issued a powerful 139-page decision striking down the teaching of intelligent design in Dover. The judge did not mince words. He ruled that ID is not a science and declared the district’s actions unconstitutional.
Jones blasted the board’s “breathtaking inanity” for approving the policy and criticized the members who had “dragged” Dover into “this legal maelstrom with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.”
Added Jones, “[T]he fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.”
Intelligent design, Jones asserted, is “creationism relabeled.” He also took a preemptive strike at his critics, writing, “Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy.”
A month before Jones’ ruling, a slate of school board candidates endorsed by Dover C.A.R.E.S. (Citizens Actively Reviewing Educational Strategies), a group that opposed teaching ID in the schools, won election and took control of the board, ensuring there would be no appeal of Jones’ ruling.
The ruling was a gratifying win for separation of church and state, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the brave parents who agreed to serve as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Leading the pack was Tammy Kitzmiller, a Dover resident and mom who wanted to ensure that her daughters got a proper science education and weren’t subjected to religious indoctrination in a public school.
Kitzmiller recently reflected on the lawsuit in an interview with Church & State Editor Rob Boston.
Boston: How did you first learn that the Dover school board was considering adding intelligent design to science classes?
Kitzmiller: I was aware that the school board was looking into new science textbooks because my older daughter’s class had to share books. There were statements made at board meetings regarding evolution and teaching “both sides.” Since my younger daughter was entering ninth grade, I was very interested in following what was going on with the issue. The local newspapers were covering the meetings, and I felt the need to get involved.
Boston: What motivated you to speak out?
Kitzmiller: I felt that the school board was forcing their religious beliefs into the science class. As a parent, I felt it was wrong. If they wanted to offer a class on world religions, then that would’ve been an entirely different situation. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. They were pushing creationism, newly labeled as intelligent design.
Boston: What were your thoughts when the possibility of litigation was raised? Were you interested in being a plaintiff right away, or did it take some persuasion?
Kitzmiller: When I first read about the school board meetings and some of the heated conversations, I brought it up with my daughters and, at the time, jokingly said that I may have to sue the school. As the issue progressed and I brought it up with my neighbor, Cyndi, she said she had already contacted people to see what could be done. I felt like I had to get involved. It was a little daunting at first, especially when I found out I would be the named plaintiff. [Attorneys] Eric Rothschild and Steve Harvey put me at ease from our first meeting, and I didn’t look back or have second thoughts.
Boston: Dover is a small community. What sort of reaction – positive and/or negative – did your opposition to ID spark?
Kitzmiller: The community was divided from the very beginning. I was point-blank asked if I was an atheist. I lost some friends. My main concern was that it would affect my daughters. The students, for the most part, were acting more adult about it than the adults. I received a lot of phone calls, and most were in support of the trial. I received a lot of mail, as well, both good and bad.
Boston: During thee controversy over ID, voters removed some of the pro-ID members from the school board. How did that come about? Were you involved in that effort?
Kitzmiller: Yes, I was involved with Dover C.A.R.E.S. from its inception. We began as a group of plaintiffs/parents and teachers meeting with ideas on what could be done to improve the school district. This was all going on parallel to the trial. We held fundraisers, we campaigned and we had meetings. The science class wasn’t the only part of the curriculum the school board had been targeting. They were looking into alternative math and history books, as well.
Boston: The case attracted international attention. Reporters from all over swarmed the town. Several books were written about the case. What are your recollections from that period? Was it challenging to go about your daily life?
Kitzmiller: The trial was surreal, to say the least. We were interviewed and were in People magazine and Rolling Stone. PBS’s “Nova” filmed us. On a daily basis I received phone messages and mail. It was challenging to focus on daily tasks and routines, not only for myself, but also my daughters. I tried to be home for dinner and to stay in tune with how they were holding up under the spotlight. The one rule I did have for them was that they couldn’t listen to the voice messages since some were pretty hateful.
I have to say during this period, the plaintiffs formed some very tight bonds. We all looked out for each other and were there for emotional support. We vacationed together and often had gatherings to talk about how we were all holding up. I was fortunate to be working for a friend at the time and that allowed flexibility with my schedule.
Boston: What’s going on in Dover now? What is the current school board like? Have there been any other church-state issues?
Kitzmiller: Dover’s school board is currently being led by a former member of Dover C.A.R.E.S. I moved out of the district in 2015 and have only heard good things about Dover and its leadership. During the most recent fall election, I was made aware of a conservative group that was running for board seats. I think only one made it on the board. Knowing this area and the people in it, I could see issues cropping up in the future. York County is a heavily red county.
Boston: Do you have any advice for anyone who might be thinking about confronting an issue like this in their own community?
Kitzmiller: Interestingly enough, a nearby school district – Northern York County – is being put to the test right now because they voted to not allow an after-school satan club to meet in their buildings. When I first read about the board meeting and proposal, I thought this could be another legal issue in the area.
My advice to any parent who takes issue with what the school board is doing is to get involved. Do not sit back and think that they are trained to be board members and know everything. I was pretty shocked to find out how little is needed to become a school board member. Some people are only there to push their agendas. Some people are there for fiscal reasons. They all need to be held accountable for their actions because what they do affects your children and your community.
Boston: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Kitzmiller: I’m asked frequently if I would do it again if given the chance and my answer is always the same – in a heartbeat. When I read about local book bans in schools, I always hope that there are parents who will step up and speak out. I am forever grateful for organizations like Americans United and the work that they do to maintain our freedoms.
Postscript: At least four books were written about the famous trial in Dover, and it was the subject of a PBS documentary. Of the books, one of the best is 2008’s The Devil in Dover by Lauri Lebo, a reporter with the York Daily Record, who brought an insider’s perspective to the case.
Judge Jones, who had been appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush, was vilified by some conservatives for striking down the ID policy. In 2014, Jones again risked right-wing ire when he nullified Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage.
In his ruling, Jones eloquently observed, “Some of our citizens are made deeply uncomfortable by the notion of same-sex marriage. However, that same-sex marriage causes discomfort in some does not make its prohibition constitutional. Nor can past tradition trump the bedrock constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection. … We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.”
Jones has since retired from the federal bench and now serves as president of Dickinson College, his alma mater.
Dover has resumed its status as a quiet community.