Defending “Design” in Dover (Pennsylvania, USA)

School Policy that Questions Darwin and Informs about Intelligent Design Goes to Federal Court

The debate over how origins should be taught in America's public school science classes takes center stage in US federal court, where intelligent design will be discussed.

The Dover statement

Text of the intelligent design statement Dover, PA, teachers were instructed to read to their students:

The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin’s theory of evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

Because Darwin’s theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, “Of Pandas and People,” is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves.

With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the origins of life to individual students and their families. As a standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on standards-based assessments.

Source: Dover Area School District News: Biology Curriculum Update

The debate over how origins should be taught in America’s public school science classes takes center stage in US federal court today (September 26) where the idea of intelligent design will be the main act. While no cameras will be allowed in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania courtroom, much international attention will be focused on the case of Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District [see previous web article Will intelligence prevail in Dover, PA?].

During the trial, which even British newspapers (like the Independent) are calling the most important legal case involving the creation/evolution debate in the USA in the last 18 years, the Dover Area School District will defend its current policy which requires ninth-grade students to hear about intelligent design (the idea that certain features of living and non-living things were designed by an “intelligent cause” as opposed to being formed through natural causes) at the beginning of their biology lessons on evolution.

The statement, which 11 parents of students at a Dover high school oppose, tells students that evolution is a theory and not a fact. (See sidebar for the full text.) It also informs them that intelligent design (ID) is an alternative explanation of the origin of life and refers them to a book, Of Pandas and People, if they want to learn more about ID.

Is intelligent design science or religion?

This non-juried trial, said by some observers to resemble the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee [see Inherit the Wind: An Historical Analysis] in a number of ways, is expected to be the first time a federal court has been asked to decide the question: is intelligent design science or religion? The left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who joined the case, claim that the Dover policy violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment1 by promoting a religious doctrine.

ACLU attorney, Paula Knudsen, said in a York (PA) Dispatch article (September 23) that there are two things at the heart of this case. “Did the school board have religious intentions in adopting a policy that mentions intelligent design, and does intelligent design have ‘religious underpinnings’?” Knudsen and the ACLU attorneys in her group are set out to prove both.

One of the most widely misreported facts about the Dover policy, according to the Dover Area School District News (February 2005), has been that Dover school district requires the “teaching” of intelligent design. But students are only made aware of intelligent design and an associated book during the reading of a one-minute statement prior to the ninth grade biology course, and so they are not actually taught about it.2

One of the state’s senators, Rick Santorum, helped set the record straight in an editorial that appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (December 25, 2004 and in the Dover Area School District News), by saying, “The school board simply has presented a balanced curriculum that makes students aware of the controversies surrounding evolution.”

Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, which is defending the school district, echoed that same opinion in an Associated Press article (September 18) when he said, “All the Dover school board did was allow students to get a glimpse of a controversy that is really boiling over in the scientific community.”

Controversy among scientists—over evolution?

Not everyone even admits there is a controversy. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the anti-creationist National Center for Science, said in an Associated Press article (September 18), that intelligent design supporters “seem to have shifted virtually entirely to political and rhetorical efforts to sway the general public. The bitter truth is that there is no argument going on in the scientific community about whether evolution took place.” 3

For those scientists who take it seriously, Darwinian evolution has functioned more as a philosophical belief system than as a testable scientific hypothesis.

The reality, however, is quite the opposite. In fact, there is a growing number of scientists, including the 400 (from all disciplines) who have signed a public statement saying they are “skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.” 4

One of those signatures comes from Professor Philip S. Skell, member of the National Academy of Sciences, submitted an open letter to Dr. Steve Abrams, Chair of Kansas State Board of Education, during the Kansas evolution hearings [see Kansas Evolution Hearings: The Case of the Missing Data].

The letter stated that, “For those scientists who take it seriously, Darwinian evolution has functioned more as a philosophical belief system than as a testable scientific hypothesis.”

The ACLU’s double-standard

So where does intelligent design’s biggest advocate, the Discovery Institute, stand in this widely publicized case? For them, the issues are more about free speech than about so-called “separation of church and state.”

“Discovery Institute strongly opposes the ACLU’s effort to make discussions of intelligent design illegal,” Dr. John West, Associate Director of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture said in a Discovery Institute News release (dated September 30).

In fact, he recognizes the ACLU applying a double-standard in this matter by saying the following:

Apparently the ACLU has come to believe that some ideas are just too dangerous for students and teachers to discuss. On the one hand, it insists that the First Amendment protects a teacher’s right to teach evidence supporting Darwin’s theory. On the other hand, it claims that the same First Amendment forbids teachers from discussing dissenting scientific theories. It looks like the ACLU believes that free speech only applies to one side of the evolution debate.

Regarding the issue of mandatory teaching of intelligent design, West said the Discovery Institute disagrees with efforts to get the government to require the teaching of intelligent design.

The reason for this, as West explained, is that “most teachers currently do not know enough about intelligent design or have sufficient curriculum materials to teach about it accurately and objectively.” (AiG has a similar stand on the mandatory teaching of creation for these same reasons.)

In the Discovery Institute news release (dated September 30), West outlined the approach they recommend: “Rather than require students to learn about intelligent design, what we recommend is that teachers and students study more about Darwinian evolution, not only the evidence that supports the theory, but also scientific criticisms of the theory.”

Predicting the outcome

So, what will be the likely outcome of this highly anticipated trial? It will no doubt have far-reaching effects for years to come on what public school students are taught about the origins of life. The judge’s ruling will most likely impact other states, such as Kansas, Ohio and Georgia [see The sticker didn't stick (or did it?)], where intelligent design is gaining support. In August, the Kansas Board of Education gave preliminary approval to science standards that allow alternatives, like intelligent design, to be discussed alongside evolution in its science classes.

“If we lose this case you’re going to see intelligent design taught in schools all across the country,” ACLU attorney Witold Walczak warned in an article in the Hartford (Connecticut) Courant (August 28).

Echoing that same prediction if the Dover School Board wins the case, Thompson said in the Courant article, “it will be a bellwether to start including intelligent design as part of the curriculum.”

David Masci of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life made the following prediction in the legal backgrounder of important cases in the evolution debate by saying, “if intelligent design is judged to be a legitimate scientific theory, it could well pass constitutional muster. However, if intelligent design is put in the same category as ‘creation science,’ the court will likely deem it, in one way or another, to be an advancement of religion and hence a violation of the Establishment Clause.”5

No matter the outcome of this court battle (the trial is expected to last five weeks), the losing side is likely to appeal and the case eventually may find itself at the Supreme Court, which would lead to a ruling that could set a national precedent for all public school boards to follow.

While recent polls [see And the Survey Shows . . .] show that a growing number of Americans say they favor teaching creation alongside evolution in public schools, AiG does not support mandatory teaching of the creation position (imagine how unbelievers would distort our position), but argues that it would be good if Christian teachers (and other teachers) were guaranteed the legislative freedom and encouragement to present critiques of evolution and discuss alternatives.

Check our website for continued updates on this very important court case in Pennsylvania. But keep in mind, bringing a case like this to a federal court reveals a symptom of a problem in society: the removal of biblical authority from everyday life. Christians cannot return America to its once-Christian foundation until they fully believe and reclaim biblical authority, beginning with the very first verse of God’s Word.


  1. A three-part test, called the “Lemon test,” is frequently used to determine whether a government action violates the Establishment Clause. Under this test, an action must (1) have a bona fide secular purpose; (2) not advance or inhibit religion; and (3) not excessively entangle the government with religion. If the challenged action fails any of the three parts of the Lemon test, it is deemed to have violated the Establishment Clause. (The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.)
  2. Dover Area School District News, Biology Curriculum Update,, February 2005.
  3. Raffaele, Martha, “Intelligent design” debate takes center stage in federal court, Associated Press, NEPA News,, September 18, 2005.
  4. Discovery Institute staff, Over 400 Scientists Convinced by New Scientific Evidence That Darwinian Evolution is Deficient, Discovery Institute News,, July 18, 2005.
  5. Masci, David, “From Darwin to Dover: An Overview of Important Cases in the Evolution Debate,” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life,, September 22, 2005.


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