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Sunday, October 01, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Judge received death threats after ruling on intelligent design

LAWRENCE, Kansas - A judge who struck down a Dover, Pennsyvania, school board's decision to teach intelligent design in public schools said he was stunned by the reaction, which included death threats and a week of protection from federal marshals.

Pennsylvania U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III told an audience in Lawrence Tuesday that the case illustrated why judges must issue rulings free of political whims or hopes of receiving a favor.

In a 139-page decision last year, Jones ruled that the Dover school board intended to promote religion when it instituted a policy requiring students to hear a statement about intelligent design before ninth-grade biology lessons on evolution. He ruled that it is unconstitutional to teach intelligent design as an alternative to evolution.

"And if you would have told me when I got on the bench four years ago that I would have death threats in a case like this as opposed to, for example, a crack cocaine case where I mete out a heavy sentence, I would have told you that you were crazy," he said. "But I did. And that's a sad statement."

Jones' ruling drew attention in Kansas, which was involved in a controversy over evolution last year, after the Kansas State Board of Education inserted criticisms of evolution into the state's science standards.

The judge spoke at the University of Kansas' Difficult Dialogues at The Commons series, which includes several speakers who will discuss the evolution and intelligent design debate.

Evolution says species change over time in response to environmental and genetic pressures, while intelligent design says life is too complex to have developed without a designer.

On Tuesday, Jones didn't focus on that debate but instead discussed the fallout, which included the death threats and a verbal lashing from conservative pundits around the country.

He said much of the criticism showed a lack of understanding about the role of judges, who he said should rule based on the Constitution and legal precedence - not on personal whims or political favors.

Jones said many people expected him to rule differently because he is a longtime Republican and was appointed by President Bush.

"These criticisms point at something in the way that both the pundits and the public tend to perceive judges," he said. "It is false, it is debilitating and if unchallenged, I believe it will ultimately tear at the fabric of our system of justice in the United States."

People have a right to disagree with judges, particularly by filing appeals, but the level of debate needs to rise above personal attacks, he said.

"As we spend time, as we did in the Dover case, debating what to put in the science curriculum in our schools, we had better start paying attention to the curriculum of civics and government, as well as history," he said.