After 22 days and several dozen witnesses, a landmark trial on whether schoolchildren should be informed about "intelligent design" (ID) as an alternative to evolutionary theory wrapped up last week in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Judge John E. Jones III said he would deliver his opinion on Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District by early January.
The plaintiffs in the case, 11 Dover parents, claimed that ID is the same as creationism and thus to teach it would be unconstitutional. The defendants argued that ID is science and that its inclusion would enhance students' "critical thinking" (ScienceNOW, 27 September).
The stakes are high for evolutionary theory. If the school board wins, says Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) in Oakland, California, "we can anticipate a flood of religiously conservative school board members around the country requiring the teaching of ID," as well as stepped-up efforts in state legislatures to pass laws sympathetic to ID. If the parents win, she says, the judge might issue a narrow ruling that does not take a stand on ID but merely states that the school board had religious motives in fostering its policy. NCSE is hoping for a stronger decision that knocks down ID as just another form of creationism, which was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1987. Such a ruling "would be a severe political and psychological blow to the ID movement," says Scott.
But defenders of ID, represented by the Christian-oriented Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, have taken the stance that the trial was over a trivial issue--a "modest change" in the curriculum, defense lawyer Patrick Gillen called it. "To some degree this court thing is a sideshow," says John West of the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington. "Science is not determined by court order." The Discovery Institute supports scholarship on ID but declined to take part in the trial because it didn't think the case was winnable.
ID proponent Paul Nelson, a philosopher at the University of Chicago in Illinois, agrees that the outcome of the trial is moot. "It doesn't really matter what happens in Kitzmiller v. Dover because the intelligent design debate is here to stay," he said at a recent forum on the topic. Polls bear that out: Over the past 2 decades, they have consistently shown that at least 40% of the population doesn't buy the conventional scientific account of human evolution.
Both sides are prepared to appeal the ruling, and the Thomas More Law Center has said it is ready to defend the case up to the U.S. Supreme Court.