FRANKFORT, Ky. - The concept of "intelligent design" is not a question of religion and Kentucky's public school districts should consider teaching it along with other ideas of how the world began, Gov. Ernie Fletcher said Tuesday.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Fletcher said he encouraged schools to teach the concept because it's "the foundational principal of our nation."
"Our inalienable rights are based on the self-evident truth of those endowed inalienable rights. And all I was saying is that from my perspective that's not a matter of faith and it's not a matter of religion," Fletcher said. "It's a matter of something called self-evident truth."
It was during the governor's State of the Commonwealth speech Monday night when Fletcher threw in a quick mention asking rhetorically, "What is wrong with teaching 'intelligent design' in our schools?" Fletcher said it was a matter of "self-evident truth."
Intelligent design attributes the existence of complex organisms to an unidentified intelligent cause. Meanwhile, the theory of evolution maintains that life evolved over time through natural selection.
"I think clearly there are some changes that have occurred over a period of time," Fletcher said. "Personally, I think that we were designed to improve based on our environment. It seems like we do have the capacity for adaptation."
The issue has led to lawsuits in other states, including Pennsylvania where last week a school district rescinded a policy requiring that intelligent design get equal billing with evolution in the classroom. A judge ruled the policy unconstitutional in December, saying the local school board's real purpose was "to promote religion in the public school classroom."
Fletcher said he wants school districts in Kentucky to approach the issue from a historical prospective, not a religious one. He said that's why he briefly mentioned intelligent design in his Monday night speech.
"What we have from our founding fathers is there was a creator and the assumption there and from self-evident truth was that that creator was an intelligent creator and that he endowed us with certain inalienable rights," Fletcher said, loosely quoting from the Declaration of Independece. "If you take away the fact of this basic understanding of our nation, what basis do you have inalienable rights placed on, which was the foundation of our nation? That's all I'm raising."
Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, said state law specifically allows public schools to teach creationism, a concept similar to the intelligent design theory.
"But having said that, the decisions on what to teach in the classroom are made at the local level," Gross said. "Really, there are no limitations on the state level on what teachers teach."
State law says teachers dealing with evolution in the classroom may include instruction on Biblical creation, and may read passages from the Bible related to the belief of creation.
The law prohibits teachers from stressing any particular denominational religious belief.
Gross said the courses dealing with intelligent design aren't necessarily limited to science classes. Sometimes, she said, it is included in comparative religion courses.
"The folks who support intelligent design say it is not biblically based, that it does not relate specifically to the Christian faith," Gross said.
Brad Hughes, spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said arguments could be made that the terms creationism and intelligent design are interchangeable.
"It depends entirely on the definition used by the teacher," Hughes said. "It could mean the same thing.
Hughes said it appears few school districts are taking advantage of the law, which was first adopted in 1976 and readopted in 1990 under the Kentucky Education Reform Act. The state law has never been tested in the courts, he said.
A recent e-mail survey turned up no school districts where intelligent design was a routine part of the curriculum.
"If it's going on, it's very limited," Hughes said. "We've gotten no phone calls in our legal section on this issue. I feel like if it was going on much at all, we would have had inquiries."
Jerry Gels, a science teacher at Lloyd Memorial High School in Erlanger, said he deals with the issue of intelligent design and creationism with his students in a sophomore biology class. But he said he doesn't know of other teachers who do the same.
"Because it is a sensitive issue, teachers want to avoid it," he said.
Gels said it's only natural that he discuss intelligent design with his students when he begins teaching the theory of evolution. That, he said, is because they are predominantly Christian and often have strong beliefs about the genesis of life. Last year, he said, one of his students was a 13-year-old ordained minister.
"They've got a lot of questions, and if you can answer those questions and have open discussions about those things, then you can really move forward," Gels said.
Gels said many of the students in his classes have been taught at home and at church that evolution is a false theory.
"It's imperative that my students understand the concept of evolution," he said. "If they don't understand evolution, they're not going to be very successful in the realm of science. If they're ignorant of evolution, they're not going to be ready for college."