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Documentary Explores Key Case on ‘Intelligent Design’

November 13, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: In recent years, in many states around the country, a battle over teaching evolution has played out in local school boards, political elections, and sometimes in the classroom itself.

Four years ago, a small town in Pennsylvania became the focal point for this fight, pitting proponents of a concept called intelligent design against teachers and parents who wanted to keep what they saw as a religious teaching out of public school biology classes.

The legal case that ensued is chronicled tonight on the PBS series “Nova” in a special called “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.” Here’s how the program begins.

NARRATOR: In October 2004, a war broke out in the small town of Dover, Pennsylvania.

PETER JENNINGS, Former Anchor, ABC News: Today, the teachers in a rural Pennsylvania town became the first in the country required to tell students that evolution is not the only theory.

NARRATOR: It started when the Dover area school board passed a policy requiring that its high school science classes include a controversial subject called intelligent design.

Proponents of intelligent design claim that many features of living organisms are too complex to have evolved entirely through the natural process of evolution, as Charles Darwin proposed. Instead, they claim some aspects of those organisms must have been created fully formed by a so-called intelligent designer. And, advocates contend, intelligent design is a bold, new, scientific theory with the power to overthrow the theory of evolution.

ROBERT MUSE, Thomas More Law Center: It’s scientists debating science, based on the evidence, not based on any religious text or authority, and it’s clearly, properly the subject of a science class.

STEVE FULLER, University of Warwick: It’s, in fact, opening the path of inquiry to new ways of thinking about things.

PHILLIP JOHNSON, UC Berkeley School of Law: If evolution by natural selection is a scientific doctrine, then a critique of that doctrine is a legitimate part of science, as well.

NARRATOR: The Dover school board demanded that science teachers read their students a one-minute statement claiming that gaps in the theory of evolution exist and putting forward intelligent design as an alternative. The statement also directed students to an intelligent design textbook called “Of Pandas and People” that would be made available.

But many Dover residents and an overwhelming number of scientists throughout the country were outraged. They say intelligent design is nothing but religion in disguise, the latest front in the war on evolution.

EUGENIE C. SCOTT, National Center for Science Education: The goal of intelligent design is to try to re-Christianize American society.

KEVIN PADIAN, UC Berkeley: Intelligent design is not anywhere a scientific concept. It’s not a field of science; it’s not being actively researched by anyone.

KENNETH R. MILLER, Brown University: It’s a violation of everything we mean and everything we understand by science.

NARRATOR: The stage was set for a battle that would pit friend against friend and neighbor against neighbor.

BILL BUCKINGHAM, Dover School Board Member: It was like we shot somebody’s dog. I mean, there was a blowup like you couldn’t believe.

JOHN E. JONES III, U.S. District Judge: It was like a civil war within the community, there’s no question.

NARRATOR: Before it was over, this battle would land the school board in federal court.

JEFFREY BROWN: In December 2005, after a lengthy trial, Judge John Jones ruled that it was unconstitutional for the school district to present intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. He called the concept a “re-labeling of creationism.”

Background in intelligent design

JEFFREY BROWN:   Judge Jones was appointed to the federal bench by President Bush in 2002. As we just saw, he appears in tonight's documentary, and he joins us now.

Welcome to you.

JOHN E. JONES III, U.S. District Judge: Great to be here, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY BROWN: When this began, how much did you know about intelligent design and evolution?

JOHN E. JONES III: Well, I knew about evolution from my training in school, but I hadn't revisited it in years and years. I got a good liberal arts education at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and had a high school education, but hadn't been there in a while.

Intelligent design I knew virtually nothing about, and I've joked that -- when I heard that the case was filed, and that it was in federal court in the middle district of Pennsylvania, I had two thoughts, and one was that I couldn't remember hearing about intelligent design before. And the second thought was, of course, I wondered who was going to get the case.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it was you, indeed.

JOHN E. JONES III: And that would be correct.

Role of the establishment clause

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you know at that moment what you were stepping into? We saw in that clip you refer to it as -- it became a civil war in the town. Did you know what you were getting into?

JOHN E. JONES III: Well, it was quite clear from the way that the lawsuit was announced in a press conference in the capitol rotunda in Harrisburg that it was a notable case. But as judges, we know that statistically most cases settle, so I couldn't know at that point that it was going to proceed to trial and that it would have the impact and notoriety that it ultimately did.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you ruled against intelligent design. Summarize your reasons for us.

JOHN E. JONES III: Well, there are very clear tests that we use as judges in cases involving the establishment clause...

JEFFREY BROWN: The establishment clause...

JOHN E. JONES III: The establishment clause within the First Amendment to the Constitution, saying, in effect, that Congress may not pass a law that promotes one religion over another. And that trickles down to the actions of a school board, in this case, through the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution that's made applicable to the states, so the school board is just as subject to it as the United States Congress is.

So when we have these cases, these establishment clause cases, we have to measure the purpose of the policy and the effect of the policy. The first thing we need to do is drill into whether or not the school board had a religious purpose in enacting the policy. The day it was done, after six weeks of testimony, it was quite clear that they did, in fact, have a religious purpose.

The effect went to: What is intelligent design? Is it science? How would the ninth-grade students receive it? And that's why, in particular, we had to tackle the question of whether or not it constituted good science. And again, after six weeks of largely expert testimony, I came to the conclusion that it simply was not good science.

Invoking judicial independence

JEFFREY BROWN: It's interesting to have you here, because we don't usually -- we get rulings or we read of them. We don't usually get to hear how the judge thinks about them. So help people understand how the legal system works in a case like this. How does a judge decide what is science and what's not science?

JOHN E. JONES III: Well, that's one of the reasons, Jeffrey, that I wanted to go out and talk about this, because we have a concept known as judicial independence, which means that judges rule, you know, free of favor and bias and not as according to the public will or to please a political benefactor.

We operate in a very workmanlike way, believe it or not. We find the facts, as we did in this case, by listening to the testimony, and then we apply well-established law to those facts. It's a sequential process that is time-tested. Every judge does it in the United States.

So big the case may have been, but the methodology that I used is what any other, I hope, good judge would do in this circumstance.

JEFFREY BROWN: This was a case, though, that did receive so much attention. And you yourself, I understand, received death threats. How is it like personally to be so involved?

JOHN E. JONES III: Very surprising. And you'll hear me say in the documentary tonight that, if you had told me that in an establishment clause case I'd get death threats, I would have been surprised, but you never know.

And, indeed, I did have marshal protection after the case, which was kind of disappointing, given the nature of the case, but it was very, very hotly contested and very controversial. It still is. There are people lined up on both sides of this issue.

A significant number of Americans, if you poll, believe that creationism ought to be taught, either supplanting evolution or alongside of evolution. And, again, you ask how the judiciary works. We protect against the tyranny of the majority.

Influence of the decision

JEFFREY BROWN: The tyranny of the majority?

JOHN E. JONES III: We don't follow public opinion polls. We are countermajoritarian. We rule as according to the law and the Constitution, which means that, just like Brown v. Board of Education -- you know, you can go back in history -- sometimes we render opinions that in their time are very unpopular, but that's the nature of Article III of the United States Constitution.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, to continue the lesson here, your ruling sets a precedent only in your area. In these two years, have you seen its influence outside and around the country?

JOHN E. JONES III: I have. And I wrote the opinion in a comprehensive way because I knew that the dispute was possibly going to be replicated someplace else. And what I wanted to do was make the opinion sort of a primer that people could read.

You're absolutely correct. It's not precedential outside of the middle district of Pennsylvania, but I thought that if other school boards and other boards of education could read it, they would possibly be more enlightened about what the dispute was all about.

And, in fact, in Ohio, in Kansas, in California, and some other places, it was reacted to in a positive way. And I know that folks on those boards said, you know, "We didn't really understand the scope of, for example, intelligent design or even evolution," until they had read the decision. So precedential, no, not outside Pennsylvania, but persuasive, perhaps, in some places.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, Judge John Jones, thank you very much.

JOHN E. JONES III: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: The "Nova" program, "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial," can be seen tonight on most PBS stations. Please check your local listings for the time.