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Scientists hail judge’s ‘intelligent design’ ruling

Paul Nussbaum Knight Ridder

PHILADELPHIA – The sweeping federal court decision Tuesday against “intelligent design” went far beyond the narrow issues in Dover, Pa., and gave new hope to American science teachers who have increasingly been on the defensive in the teaching of evolution.

In his strongly worded ruling, Judge John E. Jones III found that the Dover school board was clearly motivated by religious beliefs in ordering that students be made aware of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution.

That finding alone would have been enough to reject the board’s policy, but Jones didn’t stop there. He tackled the larger question of whether intelligent design qualified as science. He did so, he wrote, with an eye on the world beyond Dover, “in the hope that it may prevent the obvious waste of judicial and other resources which would be occasioned by a subsequent trial involving the precise question which is before us.”

By concluding that intelligent design “is an interesting theological argument but that it is not science,” Jones gave scientists, teachers and civil libertarians the broad triumph for which they had been hoping.

“We think this is going to be an extremely important decision for this country that will allow us to move from defending the integrity of science to improving the quality of science education, which is what we should be doing,” said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the nation’s largest scientific organization.

Although Jones’ ruling is not binding beyond the middle Pennsylvania district, Leshner and other advocates of evolution expect it to be used as a powerful weapon elsewhere.

Earlier this month, a federal appeals court in Georgia heard arguments over whether a school district in the Atlanta suburbs had the right to put stickers on biology textbooks describing evolution as a theory, not fact. A federal judge last January ordered the stickers removed. In November, state education officials in Kansas adopted new classroom science standards that call the theory of evolution into question. Ohio adopted lesson plans in 2004 designed to expose students to criticism of evolution.

The Dover decision “will certainly throw sand in the gears of other school districts thinking of doing this,” said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a leading proponent for the teaching of evolution. “This was the case we were hoping for.”

“As a practical matter, in Ohio and Kansas and other states, lawyers will look at the scope of this decision and have huge second thoughts,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, one of the plaintiffs in the Dover lawsuit. “To promote intelligent design after this decision is just waving a red flag saying, ‘Sue us, too.’ “

Lynn called the decision “a knockout punch to intelligent design.”

However, the leading advocate of intelligent design, the Discovery Institute in Seattle, dismissed the judge’s ruling as insignificant. And John West, a Discovery spokesman, accused Jones of being an activist judge with “delusions of grandeur.”

“He really wanted to get on his soap box. … He’s writing as if he’s a Supreme Court judge,” said West, who said the decision “is not of any precedential value.”

West said “no federal judge can censor what people can say or think about … and if he thinks he can ban an idea in America, he’s sadly misreading the American public. He may be adding fuel to the debate.”

The Discovery Institute, which advocates “teaching the controversy” about evolution, had urged the Dover board not to implement its policy and had tried to distance itself from the Dover case. The case was handled for free for the school board by the Thomas More Legal Center, a Christian law firm in Ann Arbor, Mich.

In his ruling, Jones anticipated the judicial-activist criticism and rejected the label: “This is manifestly not an activist court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID.”

Scientists and science organizations hailed Jones’ decision as a much-needed boost in their battle against those attacking evolution as a godless theory.

“Evolution is a critical topic to science education and is the basis for understanding biology and medicine,” said Bruce R. Bistrian, a physician who is president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the largest coalition of biomedical research associations in the country.

“The scientific community must rise to the challenge of defending science education against initiatives that push for the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in classrooms.”

In his ruling, the judge rejected the “false duality” of choosing between God or evolution. He said many proponents of intelligent design “make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false … that evolution theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general.”

The judge said he did not mean to preclude the study, debate and discussion of intelligent design, just the teaching of the concept as an alternative to evolution in public-school science classrooms.

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