Biohazard: 'Intelligent Design' Poses Threat to Science Education and Church-State Separation, Say Parents and Experts at Pennsylvania Trial

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, November 2005 | Go to article overview

Biohazard: 'Intelligent Design' Poses Threat to Science Education and Church-State Separation, Say Parents and Experts at Pennsylvania Trial


Boston, Rob, Church & State


Pennsylvania science teacher Bryan Rehm began to suspect there might be problems afoot after a school board member summoned him and other faculty to a special meeting to watch a video.

Titled "Icons of Evolution," the video attacked the theory of evolution and argued in favor of creationist ideas. Although the 2003-2004 school year was winding down, Rehm was alarmed because he knew the purchase of new biology texts was overdue--and this development did not portend well.

Rehm's suspicions were confirmed at a school board meeting June 7. Board member Bill Buckingham attacked the text under consideration, charging it was "laced with Darwinism."

Rehm, testifying in federal court recently, stated, "That's the first where I really saw the school board meetings sort of going downhill and degrading into not very positive discussions."

Although Rehm didn't know it at the time, events in his community of Dover would soon spiral completely out of control. The school board, stacked with Religious Right ideologues, was determined to water down the teaching of evolution in Dover schools and promote the neo-creationist concept of "intelligent design" (ID).

Rehm and many other town residents were appalled. In Rehm's case, his concerns were twofold: He was teaching science in the district at the time but also has a daughter being educated there and younger children coming up through the grade ranks. If science education in Dover were altered to allow for creationism, Rehm knew his own kids would pay a price for that.

The school board majority was determined to press ahead. In October of 2004, the board voted to require biology teachers in the district to present ID as an alternative to evolution and make the creationist tome Of Pandas and People available to students.

Rehm had, by this time, resigned his teaching position in the Dover schools for another district, but as a parent he continued to closely follow developments. With the board clinging tightly to its position, litigation seemed inevitable.

Two months later, it became a reality. Rehm and 10 other Dover parents filed suit, with the help of Americans United and its allies. The case got under way in federal court in Harrisburg, Pa., Sept. 26 and ran throughout October. As the first major legal showdown over intelligent design creationism, the battle is being closely watched. National television and radio news programs and major newspapers ran a flurry of stories about the case. Reporters have come from as far away as London and Paris to write about it.

The Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District lawsuit, which Americans United is bringing jointly with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, breaks new ground. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law requiring "balanced treatment" between evolution and creationism in 1987, but the new challenge contains an important wrinkle: Proponents of intelligent design insist their ideas are not religious and thus are appropriate for public education science classrooms.

Defenders of church-state separation counter that ID is merely warmed-over creationism, stripped of some of its more flamboyant claims and overt biblical literalism. At its core, they argue, ID remains a theological precept by claiming that a higher power is responsible for the complexity of life on Earth. While ID proponents sometimes shrink from using the word God, they offer no other plausible candidate as the intelligent designer.

Creationists are promoting ID, Americans United attorneys argue, simply because their efforts to slip old-style creationism into the classrooms have been rebuffed by the courts. ID, Americans United insists, is a slippery slope that leads to fundamentalist religion invading the science classroom.

Evidence indicates that was the case in Dover. During his testimony, Rehm recalled that during a meeting with school board member Alan Bonsell, Bonsell made it clear why he had concerns over the science curriculum.

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