Americans United Sues California School District Over 'intelligent Design' Class

Watchdog Group Says Course Is An Attempt to Push Religion, As New Front Opens In Conflict Over Creationism In The Classroom

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today filed a lawsuit in federal court in California to stop a public school district from teaching a course that promotes a religious perspective about the origins of life.

On Jan. 1, the board of trustees of El Tejon Unified School District approved an elective called “Philosophy of Design” that advocates “intelligent design” and other concepts of creationism. The course is now being taught at Frazier Mountain High School in Lebec.

Americans United, representing parents of Frazier High students, sent a Jan. 4 letter to Superintendent John Wight and school board members advising them that teaching a particular religious viewpoint in a public school class violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

After school officials refused to discontinue the course, Americans United today asked the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, Fresno Division, for a temporary restraining order to end the class. The Hurst v. Newman lawsuit is being filed on behalf of 11 parents of students in the school district.

“There is a national crusade under way to inject religion into our public schools, and it must not succeed,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “Religious Right activists are looking for every opportunity to proselytize students into their doctrines. The so-called ‘philosophy’ course in Lebec is the latest maneuver in a long line of misguided schemes.

“This situation has nothing to do with academic freedom or teaching critical thinking, as school officials contend,” Lynn continued. “This is a clear case of government promotion of religion, and it violates the U.S. Constitution. Public schools serve children of many faiths and none, and the curriculum should never single out a particular religious viewpoint for preferential treatment.”

The “Philosophy of Design” course description, which was given to students and their families in early December, stated that it would “take a close look at evolution as a theory and will discuss the scientific, biological, and Biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin’s philosophy is not rock solid…. Physical and chemical evidence will be presented suggesting the earth is thousands of years old, not billions.”

While school officials claim the course offers balanced analysis of evolution and intelligent design, evidence demonstrates that the clear purpose of the class is promotion of religion.

In the Jan. 4 letter to school officials, AU Legal Director Ayesha Khan cited a long string of federal court opinions that “bar public schools from seeking to debunk evolution for religious ends or from teaching (or giving ‘equal time’ to) religious theories on the origins of life.”

Khan also noted that it was only weeks ago that a federal district court in an expansive decision invalidated a Pennsylvania school district’s effort to introduce intelligent design (ID) to high school science courses. In a lawsuit brought by Americans United and its allies, Judge John E. Jones III ruled that “ID is nothing less than the progeny of creationism.”  

In its complaint seeking to block the high school from teaching the course, Americans United noted that teacher Sharon Lemburg proposed the course for overtly religious reasons. Lemburg wrote the course description and also prepared a course syllabus showing that intelligent design would be the primary topic of discussion. ID maintains that life is so complex that an intelligent entity, likely God, must have created it. 

For example, Lemburg’s syllabus asks why ID is “gaining momentum” and why it is “so threatening to society, the educational system and evolutionists.” The original syllabus for the class listed 24 videos for potential use, all but one of them produced by religious organizations and centered on attacking evolution and advancing intelligent design. One video, called “Chemicals to Living Cells: Fantasy or Science,” is produced by a Christian ministry called Answers in Genesis.

The local parents who are plaintiffs in the case object to the course because it undercuts science education and violates the separation of church and state. In a declaration filed with the federal court, plaintiff Kenneth Hurst said the class “undermines the sound scientific principles taught in Frazier Mountain High School’s biology curriculum” and is “an inappropriate attempt to bring religious teachings into the classroom and to evangelize students.”

Said AU’s Lynn, “It is all too clear that the teacher is seeking to persuade students that intelligent design is a legitimate scientific alternative. Her course attempts to re-define science to advance a religious belief. That’s not constitutionally permissible or educationally sound. It must be stopped.”

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.