Science Lesson: Celebrating 10 Years Of The Dover Decision

On Dec. 20, 2005, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III of the Middle District of Pennsylvania handed down an important ruling in a case challenging the teaching of “intelligent design” creationism in public schools.

In Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, Jones struck down a policy that had been approved by members of the school board in Dover, Pa., a small town of about 2,000 residents. His ruling was a slam dunk, making it clear that intelligent design (ID) is not science.

Under the school board’s scheme, teachers were required to read a “disclaimer” before evolution was taught in class. The disclaimer said in part, “The Theory of Evolution, while technically not a fact, is the most widely accepted amongst the scientific community. Gaps in the Theory of Evolution exist for which there is no evidence; however, these gaps are becoming much less prevalent through modern science…. Intelligent Design is a religious 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.”

The board also attempted to salt the school library with copies of Of Pandas and People, a pseudo-scientific creationist tome.

When teachers in the district refused to read the disclaimer, administrators stepped forward to take up the task. Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the National Center for Science Education warned the school board in Dover that they were courting a lawsuit. They refused to listen.

Left with no other option, the three organizations, joined by the law firm Pepper Hamilton, took the matter to court on behalf of local parent plaintiffs.

Jones’ ruling, spanning 139 pages, offered a penetrating analysis of church-state law and the difference between religion and science.

“The disclaimer’s plain language, the legislative history, and the historical context in which the ID Policy arose, all inevitably lead to the conclusion that Defendants consciously chose to change Dover’s biology curriculum to advance Religion,” wrote Jones. “We have been presented with a wealth of evidence which reveals that the District’s purpose was to advance creationism, an inherently religious view, both by introducing it directly under the label ID and by disparaging the scientific theory of evolution, so that creationism would gain credence by default as the only apparent alternative to evolution….”

Jones, who was appointed to the court by President George W. Bush in 2002, was clearly bothered by the antics of the school board. His ruling observed, “The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.”

It’s worthwhile to celebrate this ruling on the occasion of its 10-year anniversary. The members and supporters of Americans United, the ACLU and the National Center for Science Education should be proud of the work that was done in this landmark case.

But let’s not get too complacent. As satisfying as the victory was, the Kitzmiller case didn’t end the dispute over evolution in public schools. Far from it.

Attorneys with Americans United receive complaints about creationism in public schools at a regular clip. Some of the things that go on can only be called outrageous.

Earlier this year, officials at an elementary school in Glendive, Mont., planned to take third graders on a field trip to a local creationist museum run by a fundamentalist Christian ministry. They backed off only after Americans United sent them a stern letter, but school officials made it clear they weren’t happy about it. In light of that, what sort of instruction about evolution do you think the youngsters are getting in that district?

Indeed, our biggest challenge these days often isn’t overt creationism, it’s poor teaching of actual science. Yes, it’s illegal to teach religious concepts in public school science classes, and AU and its allies can put a stop to it when it happens.

Yet it does not follow that schools will automatically start teaching evolution. That takes additional effort. Schools are quite capable of offering tepid instruction about evolution or even refusing to use the word in science class.

In Dover, there was a happy footnote to Jones’ strong ruling: Voters went to the polls and elected a new school board, one that wasn’t in the thrall of right-wing fundamentalist Christians.

The win in Dover was satisfying, and as we mark its 10-year anniversary it’s fitting to take a moment to acknowledge the brave parents who served as plaintiffs. They were thrust into the national spotlight and compelled to take on a high-profile legal fight when all they really wanted to do was ensure a good education for their kids.

It’s appropriate to salute their courage, but we must do more than that: We must vow to make sure that our children in public schools are taught modern science untainted by dogma. There must be no more Dovers.