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Tuesday, November 29, 2005                                                                                       View Comments

Intelligent-design ruling could affect Ohio schools

Scott Stephens – Plain Dealer

Intelligent design went on trial this year, and the verdict could soon put Ohio's new biology standards under a microscope.

The six-week federal court trial, which ended earlier this month, was the result of a decision last year by the Dover, Pa., school board that teachers must mention the controversial concept to high school biology students. Eleven parents in the small agricultural town about 100 miles west of Philadelphia sued to block the policy. A verdict is expected by early January.

The case marks the first time that intelligent design, which maintains that life is so complex that a higher being must have had a hand in its creation, has gone to trial.

It comes 80 years after the famous "monkey trial" in which Tennessee teacher John Scopes faced criminal charges for teaching evolution, Charles Darwin's widely accepted theory that life on Earth descended from common ancestors.

A verdict declaring intelligent design warmed-over creationism -- a religion-based interpretation of life's origins banned by the U.S. Supreme Court from public schools since 1987 -- could bring Ohio's science standards under scrutiny.

While Ohio's standards don't endorse intelligent design, critics say some of the lesson plans based on those standards would teach the concept.

"The decision in Dover should have a dramatic impact across the country because it will be the first time a court has spoken to the issue of intelligent design," said Richard Katskee, the assistant legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which brought the Dover suit in concert with the American Civil Liberties Union.

"If the judge rules in our favor, other school boards will need to take a lesson from that holding and correct problems in their own curricula," he said. "Our hope would be that a responsible school board would study the opinion in Dover and take it to heart. Whether litigation follows depends on how they will react to the ruling."

It has been nearly two years since a sharply divided Ohio Board of Education adopted a series of science lesson plans that included a lesson called "Critical Analysis of Evolution." Supporters say it simply encourages a rigorous debate over evolution.

"The lesson plan is very defens ible," said Robert Lattimer, a Hudson chemist and outspoken intelligent-design supporter. "It is, first of all, not mandatory in any sense of the word. It is also very consistent with the 2002 science standards. Finally, the lesson contains no hint of religion or intelligent design."

But the Ohio lesson plan was castigated by the National Academy of Science, which characterized it as thinly disguised intelligent design. That could make the plan a target if intelligent design is ruled unconstitutional.

"It contains misstatements that come directly from creationist literature," said Patricia Princehouse, an evolutionary biologist at Case Western Reserve University. Said Katskee: "We think there are difficulties with [the Ohio lesson], and we've been monitoring the situation all along."

It was hardly a surprise that Katskee would find difficulties with the actions of Dover school officials. At the end of the 2003-04 school year, science teachers were summoned to a special meeting to watch "Icons of Evolution," a video that attacked evolution and supported intelligent design. The following summer, the school board delayed ordering new biology texts, charging that the ones under consideration were "laced with Darwinism."

That fall, biology teachers were ordered to tell their students about an alternative science text, "Of Pandas and People," a book widely viewed by scientists as a creationist tome with language about intelligent design tacked on. The teachers refused. Then they were told the principal would come to their classrooms to make the announcement. Again, they refused. Finally, the school held an assembly to inform students of the alternative text, 60 copies of which were donated to the school by the church of board member William Cunningham.

"Two thousand years ago, someone died on the cross," news accounts reported Cunningham declaring at a board meeting. "Can't someone take a stand for him?"

The way the district handled the episode made even intelligent-design backers squeamish. The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank and the nation's most vocal intelligent-design advocate, called the mandate to teach intelligent design "misguided."

The majority of Dover voters apparently agreed. On Nov. 8, they voted eight members of the nine-member board out of office. All had supported the intelligent- design policy.

"The Dover case is a sad affair," Lattimer said. "The Dover policy is very poorly written, so in a sense it shouldn't be upheld in court. I hope the case doesn't go any further than the Pennsylvania court. It just is not a good test case for our side."

People on both sides of the evolution-intelligent design argument agree that it's impossible to know exactly what is being done in every Ohio biology class. This is only the second full school year that the controversial "Critical Analysis of Evolution" has been available, and the origins-of-life portion of 10th-grade biology is generally taught in the second semester.

Questions related to the lesson did not show up on the science portion of the Ohio Graduation Test given last spring - the first time the test was given - but could surface on future versions. That's not to say there aren't tensions. During a recent talk by Princehouse at Case, security was called to help remove a heckler from a Clapp Hall classroom.

The heckler, who was not a student, interrupted Princehouse regularly during her 90-minute presentation, at one point declar ing that "decent scientists making advancements in science get slandered" by the pro-evolution scientific community.

But even in a war of ideas, there are lighter moments.

At the conclusion of the Dover trial, banter between Patrick Gillen, the lawyer for the school board, and U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III sparked laughter and applause.

"Your honor," Gillen said, "I have one question, and that's this: By my reckoning, this is the 40th day since the trial began and tonight will be the 40th night, and I would like to know if you did that on purpose."

"Mr. Gillen," the judge deadpanned, "that is an interesting coincidence - but it was not by design."