Pa. School Board Members Say They Misspoke About Support For Creationism

Two school board members in Dover, Pa., who backed plans to introduce “in­telligent design” (ID), struggled in federal court to explain discrepancies in their stories.

Former board president Alan Bonsell tried to explain the source of $850 the board used to purchase copies of an ID textbook called Of Pandas and People. Unfortunately, for Bonsell, his story on the stand did not jibe with what he told lawyers during an earlier deposition.

In two sworn statements last year, Bonsell testified that he did not know the source of the $850. On the stand in late October, Bonsell shifted gears and admitted the money came from fellow board member William Buckingham. Bonsell then gave the check to his father, Donald Bonsell, who purchased the books.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III was clearly agitated by the discrepancies in Bonsell’s story. In a highly unusual move, Jones began questioning Bonsell from the bench.

The Inquirer reported that the normally placid Jones “grew red-faced and launched into a blistering 10-minute cross-examination” of Jones.

“You were the conduit by which your father received the $850?” Jones asked. “Why in January of 2005 didn’t you tell [the plaintiffs’ attorney] on repeated questioning that Mr. Buckingham was involved in the exchange?”

Bonsell replied, “It was my fault. I should have said Buckingham.” He also said he “misspoke” in not reporting the source of the money.

Buckingham had earlier testified from the stand that the $850 came from donations taken at his church – a fact he failed to disclose during depositions. During depositions, Buckingham said he did not know the source of the money. On the stand, he admitted he had stood up in church and told congregants they could donate toward the costs of the books.

Lawyers representing Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union also pressed Buckingham on his claims that he does not want to teach creationism in the Dover schools. Buck­ingham was shown a news clip from a local television station that showed him saying, “It’s OK to teach Darwin, but you have to balance it with something else, such as creationism.”

Asked to respond, Buckingham insisted he was “ambushed” by a TV crew in a parking lot and got nervous.

“I had it in my mind to make sure not to talk about creationism,” he said. “I had it on my mind. I was like a deer in the headlights. I misspoke.”

Buckingham also insisted that whenever he used the term “intelligent design,” the local papers printed “creationism” anyway.

The Dover School Board is being defended by the Thomas More Law Center, a conservative Catholic law group founded by Thomas Monaghan, former owner of Domino’s Pizza. The case, however, has opened up internal rifts in the intelligent-design movement.

The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based group that promotes ID, refused to support the Dover board, saying it does not back the decision to mandate instruction about the concept.

Three Discovery Institute supporters had initially agreed to testify on behalf of the Dover board but then backed out. As the trial was winding down, two other pro-ID witnesses, Warren Nord, a University of North Carolina philosophy professor, and Dick Carpenter, a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs education professor and former staffer at Focus on the Family, also withdrew.

At an Oct. 21 panel on ID in Washing­ton at the American Enterprise Institute, Richard Thompson, the Thomas More Law Center’s lead attorney in the Dover case, complained that the Discovery Institute had hurt his defense.

“And I think what was victimized by this strategy was the Dover school board, because we could not present the expert testimony we thought we could present,” Thompson said.

The case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, wrapped up in early November. Jones said he may have a decision by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, voters in the area sent a strong signal Nov. 8 that they are weary of Dover being the center of an international media circus. A slate of school board candidates who oppose intelligent design was elected, and a pro-evolution majority will take control this month. Bonsell was among the losing incumbents. Of the 16 candidates, he received the smallest vote total.

“I think voters were tired of the trial, they were tired of intelligent design, they were tired of everything that this school board brought about,” Bernadette Rein-k­ing, one of the winning candidates, told The New York Times.