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A Defeat for “Intelligent Design”

December 20, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Today’s ruling by Federal Judge John Jones came in the nation’s first case testing the constitutional merits of offering students intelligent design as an alternative to evolution.

Here to talk about the case out of Dover, Pennsylvania, and today’s ruling, is Laurie Goodstein, who’s been covering the trial for The New York Times.

And Laurie, welcome.


MARGARET WARNER: First of all, briefly remind us of the facts of this case, how it came about.

LAURIE GOODSTEIN: The Dover school board thought they were doing something very modest when they voted to read students a very brief statement at the start of their ninth grade biology class saying that there are reasons to question the theory of evolution. There are gaps in the theory and that there are alternatives that the students should look at including intelligent design. And it referred them to a textbook called “Of Pandas and People” that they put in the high school library.

MARGARET WARNER: And this was pushed by what, a majority of the school board members?

LAURIE GOODSTEIN: Yes, it was a majority of the school board members, led in particular by two school board members who had had a record of advocating teaching creationism at school board meetings.

MARGARET WARNER: And there was a six-week trial. Both sides called all kinds of experts. What did it focus on? What were they arguing about?

LAURIE GOODSTEIN: Well, the trial treated not only the specific situation in Dover but also the merits of intelligent design. There were scientists on both sides who argued for and against including intelligent design. The question was whether it should be taught as a science in a science class.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. So, sum up the gist of the judge’s ruling. In other words, he found this was unconstitutional on what grounds?

LAURIE GOODSTEIN: Well, the ruling is a very strong rebuke to advocates of intelligent design who have tried to put distance between their theory and creationism. They say that their theory is not religion, that it is a science.

But the judge ruled that there was really no way to see it other than as a re-labeling, he called it, of creationism; that it had historical ties as a movement to creationism and creation science; and that the Supreme Court has already ruled that it’s unconstitutional to teach creationism because it’s religion.

MARGARET WARNER: At one point right in the conclusion, even though this isn’t a big long decision — it’s only four pages — he accuses some of the members of the school board of actually lying. What was he referring to?

LAURIE GOODSTEIN: Right. He said that two members of the school board had tried to cover up their motive, that they had religious motives, and that they in part lied about how the textbooks, “Pandas and People” textbooks came to be in the high school library.

The truth was that they had raised money in a church. And one of the school board members had then kind of laundered the money through his father who purchased the textbooks and put them in the high school library.

And they had not been honest in their depositions. And the judge made a point of saying that he thought it was ironic that people who, you know, said they had religious motives would lie on the stand.

MARGARET WARNER: Now most of these original school board members were voted out last year, right?

LAURIE GOODSTEIN: Right, right, just last month. There was an election. And it was a very surprising result. Dover is majority Republican. The challengers to the school board that had voted for intelligent design were running on the Democratic line. And yet the Democrats won.

And these were people who had come in saying they opposed the “intelligent design” policy and would not have voted for it themselves. And the intelligent design proponents were voted out.

MARGARET WARNER: And so the assumption is that this new school board will not appeal this ruling. But have they actually said so? Has a decision been made?

LAURIE GOODSTEIN: The decision hasn’t been made, but they have said before today, before seeing the ruling that they were inclined to abide by whatever the judge ruled.

And they, given that they are opposed to intelligent design, they really have no motive to appeal.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times, thanks so much.


MARGARET WARNER: Now, reaction to the decision from two lawyers involved in the case. Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel at the Thomas More Law Center, which handled the case for the Dover area school district. And Eric Rothschild is partner at Pepper Hamilton, LLP, which represented the plaintiffs; that is, the parents who objected to what the school board had done. Welcome to you both.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s just start with your reaction to the ruling. Mr. Rothschild.

ERIC ROTHSCHILD: Thanks for having me on. This ruling was really a complete victory and a great vindication for these parents who stood up for their children in their community for their right to practice their own religious beliefs without intrusion by the school board, government actors, and both sides asked the judge to decide whether intelligent design is science or religion and creationism. And the judge clearly found it is a particular religious view; it is a form of creationism and it is not science. So we’re elated with the ruling.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Thompson, I imagine you feel the opposite.

RICHARD THOMPSON: Well, yes. We think there’s a lot of the parts of that decision that are very troubling. First of all, we have to keep in mind that this was a one-minute statement where the phrase “intelligent design” was mentioned twice.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me interrupt you. You’re talking about what the teacher was required to tell the ninth grade biology students.

RICHARD THOMPSON: Right. Right. It was a one-minute statement that was read to the biology students just before they took up the section on evolution. And the phrase “intelligent design” was mentioned twice in that one-minute statement.

The policy of the school board went on to say that only evolution would be taught, that the students would be tested on evolution, that teachers were prohibited from either teaching intelligent design or creationism or presenting their views or religious views of the school board.

And yet through this incoherent establishment clause jurisprudence that we have now, the court found that this rose to the level of a violation of the establishment clause.

Our founding fathers would really be astounded that the establishment clause that they drafted would be used to knock down this very modest attempt by the school board to introduce the controversy that is surrounding the theory of intelligent design versus evolution.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Rothschild, based on your reading of the opinion, how did the judge get to where he arrived, just in a constitutional sense?

ERIC ROTHSCHILD: Well, this intelligent design proposition has historical precedence in the legal arena, and courts have previously found that teaching creationism, it is unconstitutional. One of the things —

MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about the Supreme Court, itself, has found that?

ERIC ROTHSCHILD: That’s correct as well as other lower courts. And what we presented to the judge — and I think he found particularly compelling — is that intelligent design really makes the same arguments as creationism or creation science.

In fact, the textbook “Of Pandas and People,” which students are directed to in that statement was written as a creationist book and only changed the terms but none of the concepts after the Supreme Court ruled that creation science is unconstitutional.

So it’s really exactly what courts have dealt with in the past. In a sense there’s nothing new here except for that creationists have put a new name on the same proposition.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain how —

Just a minute, excuse me, Mr. Thompson. Let me get Mr. Rothschild to explain one thing.

Explain how you demonstrated to the court that this “Of Pandas and People” that the students were referred to was really a creationist document as you say?

ERIC ROTHSCHILD: We subpoenaed the publisher of “Of Pandas and People,” an organization called the Foundation for Thought and Ethics.

And what we found and what the judge exclaimed his astonishment about in this opinion is that the drafts of “Pandas” used the word “creation” or “creationism” or “creation science” in the same places that the published version of “Pandas” uses the term “intelligent design.”

And we also demonstrated to the judge that the timing of the change in terminology in the drafts coincided with that Supreme Court decision, the Edwards case, which found that creation science is unconstitutional.


ERIC ROTHSCHILD: We also presented evidence to the judge that there’s really no science behind this concept of “intelligent design.”

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Thompson, did that — getting all those drafts of “Of Pandas and People” into the court record, does that make it a pretty uphill climb for you to then argue that, no, this is really a scientific textbook?

RICHARD THOMPSON: Well, first of all, we have to understand that the school board had no knowledge of the various drafts, the various manuscripts that had been prepared prior to the time that they saw the final version of “Of Pandas and People.”

In fact, the plaintiffs’ own witness said that it would be unfair to attribute to the school board various drafts of “Of Pandas and People,” which the school board never even saw.

Secondly, this idea that “creationism” is an old concept that the courts have already decided on flies in the face of the testimony of two credible scientists who basically testified, subject to rigorous cross-examination, that what they were basing their theory of intelligent design was scientific data, empirical data, that they saw in their labs, the complex biological structures that they viewed they concluded could not have been caused by Darwin’s theory of natural selection acting on random mutation; that these complex biological systems were there because they served a purpose. And that’s the reason that they said it is an intelligent design.

Now that is different than creationism, which goes to the Bible or Genesis or some holy scripture and makes the conclusions based upon that holy scripture.


RICHARD THOMPSON: These were conclusions based upon scientific evaluation of the data that these credible scientists saw.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. I would like to ask you a follow-up question on that point.


MARGARET WARNER: In, again, his conclusion, the judge said he wasn’t saying that intelligent design shouldn’t be discussed, debated and studied in the schools; it just didn’t belong in the science class, as if to suggest that it might belong in social studies class or comparative religions. What would be wrong with that?

RICHARD THOMPSON: Well, first of all it’s a scientific theory and therefore it’s proper to be in the science class. After all, all the Dover area school board did was make students aware that there is a controversy in this area and that there is an alternative theory, and that’s the theory of intelligent design.

This judge should not place himself in the position of determining which scientific theory is valid and which is not. A thousand decisions is not going to change the law of gravity, nor is a thousand judicial decisions going to determine whether intelligent design is a valid theory. That should be left up to the scientists. It should be left up to the debate that the scientific community was involved with.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get Mr. Rothschild back in here. Do you want to respond to that, sir?

ERIC ROTHSCHILD: Sure. The scientists that Mr. Thompson is referring to don’t study intelligent design in the labs; they don’t test intelligent design; they don’t write articles for peer review scientific journals about intelligent design, and that’s because intelligent design is at its core a religious proposition that there was a supernatural creator who caused biological life.

Their lead expert, Dr. Behe, testified that intelligent design is more believable the more you believe in God. And I don’t know of any other scientific proposition that fits that description.

There’s really — there’s no controversy in the scientific community. There’s a controversy that has been created in the public arena by the intelligent design movement itself. But science isn’t debating evolution versus intelligent design. That’s just —

MARGARET WARNER: Hold on. Just let me follow up with Mr. Rothschild for a minute. Then I’ll get back to you, Mr. Thompson.

Let’s pitch forward here now and talk about the significance of this ruling. The fact that, Mr. Rothschild, this is just a district — it’s a federal court in the central district of Pennsylvania; we’ve already heard that the school board is probably not going to appeal so it’s not going to go up to a higher court. How much impact does it have?

ERIC ROTHSCHILD: You’re right that it’s not binding precedent on other jurisdictions such as Kansas or Ohio, where these controversies are already flaring up. But it’s extremely persuasive precedent.

The judge took pains to say, you know, both sides presented the case for and against intelligent design. A lot of resources were expended including by the court. And it would be a waste to play over and over again this controversy when he has examined it so closely.

And I would hope that other school districts, seeing what Dover has gone through and the results of this opinion, would think carefully about whether they really want to subject their schools and their communities to this when, you know, the theory of evolution is so soundly accepted and corroborated and intelligent design really has no science behind it.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And, Mr. Thompson, where does — your censure was very much — in fact, the judge even says you helped instigate this. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but where do you go from here? Where is the intelligent design movement go from here?

RICHARD THOMPSON: That comment made by the judge shows where he’s at because there is no evidence that we instigated it. In fact, we did not instigate it.

What Mr. Rothschild is saying about intelligent design was said about the “big bang” theory back in the 1920s.

MARGARET WARNER: But where do you go from here legally?

RICHARD THOMPSON: As Mr. Rothschild indicated, there is no precedential value to what the judge said.

What I would suggest is if school boards are interested in intelligent design, they should read the transcript of the expert testimony, and from there go on to determine whether intelligent design really is a scientific theory or not.

And I think they will find that we had credible scientists like Michael Behe and Scott Minnich, who talked about the bacterial flagellum, the blood clotting cascade and other biological systems that could not have been explained by Darwin’s theory of evolution and that a valid theory is intelligent design.

MARGARET WARNER: Sir, very briefly, is there another case we should be looking at?

RICHARD THOMPSON: There are several cases out there that are percolating. There are different fact scenarios. We have some teachers who want to teach intelligent design regardless of what the school board says or does. In fact, this goes back to 1925 —

MARGARET WARNER: And, sir, I’m sorry. We don’t have time to go back to 1925. I am out of time. And I thank you both very much.