The Journal Editorial Report | May 27, 2005 | PBS
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briefing and opinion
May 27, 2005

Monkey See, Monkey Do?
Scopes Monkey trial
Judge John T. Raulston of Winchester holds the decision in the Tennessee versus John Scopes case at the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee, July 17, 1925. Scopes, a high school biology teacher, was on trial for violating the Butler Act, a Tennessee law that forbade the teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools because it contradicts the Bible. Scopes was convicted and fined $100, but the state supreme court later overturned the decision. (AP)

How we got here -- and whether our schools should teach evolutionary theory as the answer -- is consistently one of the nation's hot-button issues. Never more than now, as 21 states consider allowing their schools to teach alternatives to evolution. One of them is called "intelligent design" -- the idea that life is too complex to have been created without the work of some intelligent force. Nowhere is this argument further along than in Dover, Pennsylvania, where it's at the center of both a school board election and a federal lawsuit. Lisa Rudolph reports.

Dover The sleepy farm community of Dover, population 25,000, is only an hour outside Philadelphia, but here time seems slower, neighbors closer, and deep-rooted Christian faith as much a part of town history as the Revolutionary War. The town is now at war with itself, divided by, of all things, a battle over biology. Eighty years after the Scopes monkey trial it is the same debate over science, God and the separation of church and state in public schools.

Last fall the Dover school board voted to require teachers to read a four-paragraph statement that Darwin's theory of evolution is only one theory "not fact." It does not specifically mention God, instead encouraging students to "keep an open mind" about the origin of life and referring them to the theory called intelligent design. It says life is so complex, a higher power must have created us. Dover biology teachers refused to read the statement. "If we had read the statement it would have given Intelligent design legitimacy as a scientific theory," said science teacher Jennifer Miller.

Instead Dover administrators read the statement. But, if the goal was to encourage critical thinking, it sure didn't seem that way to students like Danielle Yagodich. "I don't think anyone actually knew what intelligent design was after hearing the statement," says Yagodich. "There was no discussion. It's just, this is what it is and then they left."

Eleven local parents represented by the American Civil Liberties Union are now suing the school board for violating the constitutional separation of church and state and the 1987 Supreme Court ruling that bans creationism from being taught as a science. Dover students

"If the courts hold that this is constitutionally permissible, what you will see happen across this nation is intelligent design popping up in all kinds of school boards," says Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center and head of the Christian legal defense group representing Dover's school board. This is exactly what they hope will happen, says Thompson, explaining that, while there have been challenges to evolution education proposed or acted upon in several states this year, Dover was the first to single out intelligent design as an alternative. Thompson says he feels confident that they will prevail.

"I think whether it is our case or some other case Darwin's going down the tubes, no question about it," says Thompson.

Dr. Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, says the case against evolution is nonsense. "One of the long-standing creationist arguments is that evolution has a lot of gaps or problems in it," she says. "The idea that evolution needs some special singling out is just ludicrous. The idea that intelligent design is not a way of slipping religion into the classroom is ludicrous. "

A recent CBS News poll found nearly 65 percent of Americans are in favor of teaching creationism along with evolution in schools. Thirty-seven percent favor banning evolution entirely. bus drivers

In Dover, every supporter we talked to -- like one group of bus drivers in Jim and Nena's pizzeria -- was clear about the only reason they DID want Intelligent Design taught to their children:

"There's so much bad going on in the world, what's the matter with more religion in the schools"

"That's the problem there's too much separation of church and state"

Jeff and Carol Brown, long-time school board members, resigned in protest. They say the school board is interested in putting religion into the classroom, not intelligent design. When asked if religion were not the primary motivation for the Dover school board's actions, Richard Thompson countered that evolution, too, was religious in nature.

Jeff and Carol Brown "If the courts say the government must be religiously neutral, then they have to take out Darwin's theory of evolution because it posits an atheist or secular humanist religion," says Richard Thompson.

No U.S. court has ever said that evolution is a religion, but Thompson suggests this is because no one has tried it yet. He does not view the case as eroding the separation of church and state.

"It's going back to what our Founding Fathers thought they were doing," says Thompson. "You have to also understand that over 76 percent of Americans are Christians."

In the end it may all boil down to money. In one of the poorest districts in the state, the looming court battle could mean bankruptcy. The ACLU has said that it is going to run up legal bills like Dover has never seen. Is it worth it?

If you believe in something strong enough, anything's worth it," says Reverend David Sproull of the Dover Assembly of God.

"We're trying to find out in this country right now how we bridge the gap between our religion and our other beliefs that we have," says Gary Sutton of the local WSBS News Talk Radio. "So I think you see a little of that coming to the forefront here in a place like Dover. It could be any Dover in any part of the country."

Debate: Evolution vs. Intelligent Design >