Intelligent Design on Trial

Board vs. Teachers

In 2004 the quiet town of Dover, Pennsylvania, was catapulted into the spotlight of national attention and scrutiny. That year, Dover Area School District board member Bill Buckingham requested that a textbook teaching intelligent design—the idea that life is too complex to have evolved naturally and therefore must have been designed by an intelligent agent—be added to the science program.

The school board decided against adopting the book, but Buckingham and his curriculum committee soon after drafted a policy mandating that before every biology unit that involved evolution, students be read a statement telling them that "gaps [and] problems" with Darwin's theory exist. This time, the board voted in Buckingham's favor. They announced on November 19 of that year that the town's science teachers would be required to read the statement to students, and that copies of the intelligent-design textbook would be made available in the school library.

The decision sparked outrage among many in the community. On December 14, 11 parents of Dover high school students filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court alleging the school board was violating their constitutional rights by introducing religion into a public school. A court date was set, and as depositions were being taken, the Dover science teachers, who were not a party to the lawsuit, took a stand of their own against the new policy.

Below, we introduce the statement the school board wanted read to biology students, followed by the teachers' response. Both are presented verbatim.


The school board's statement:

The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin's Theory of Evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.

With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families. As a Standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on Standards-based assessments.

Two members of Dover school board

Alan Bonsell (left), a local businessman, and Bill Buckingham, a retired police officer, were two members of the Dover school board who advocated bringing intelligent design into the science classroom.


The teachers' response, delivered in a memo to Dover school superintendent Richard Nilsen:

To: Dr. Richard Nilsen

From: Bertha Spahr
         Jennifer Miller
         Robert Linker
         Robert Eshbach
         Leslie Prall
         Brian Bahn
         David Taylor
         Vickie Davis

Date: January 6, 2005

Re: Reading Statement on Intelligent Design

We have individually reviewed the statement you presented yesterday for presentation to our students at the beginning of the Biology unit dealing with evolution. You have indicated that students may "opt-out" of this portion of the class and that they will be excused and monitored by an administrator. We respectfully exercise our right to "opt-out" of the statement portion of the class. We will relinquish the classroom to an administrator and we will monitor our own students. This request is based upon our considered opinion that reading the statement violates our responsibilities as professional educators as set forth in the Code of Professional Practice and Conduct for Educators promulgated by the Professional Standards and Practices Commission and found at 22 Pa. Code section 235.1 et.seq. As noted in the introductory paragraph of the Code, section 235.2 (a): "Generally, the responsibility for professional conduct rests with the individual professional educator." Further, the Code provides in section 235.2 (b): "This chapter makes explicit the values of the education profession. When individuals become educators in this Commonwealth, they make a moral commitment to uphold these values."

Central to the teaching act and our ethical obligation is the solemn responsibility to teach the truth. Section 235.10 (2) guides our relationships with students and provides that "The professional educator may not Knowingly and intentionally misrepresent subject matter or curriculum."


I believe that if I as the classroom teacher read the required statement, my students will inevitably (and understandably) believe that Intelligent Design is a valid scientific theory, perhaps on par with the theory of evolution. That is not true. To refer the students to "Of Pandas and People" as if it is a scientific resource breaches my ethical obligation to provide them with scientific knowledge that is supported by recognized scientific proof or theory.

Reading the statement places us in violation of the following ethical obligations: Section 235.3 of the Code requires Professional educators to develop "sound educational policy" and obligates us "to implement that policy." Section 235.3 (b) makes it explicit that "Professional educators recognize their primary responsibility to the student and the development of the student's potential. Central to that development is the professional educator's valuing the pursuit of truth; devotion to excellence; acquisition of knowledge; and democratic principles." The same section goes on to provide: "Educators encourage and support the use of resources that best serve the interests and needs of students. Within the context of professional experience, the educator and the student together explore the challenge and the dignity of the human experience." Section 235.4 (b) (2) provides: "Professional educators shall be prepared, and legally certified, in their areas of assignment. Educators may not be assigned or willingly accept assignments they are not certified to fulfill." Section 235.5(b) (8) provides: "Professional educators shall be open-minded, knowledgeable and use appropriate judgment and communication skills when responding to an issue within the educational environment." Section 235.4 (b) (10) provides: "Professional educators shall exert reasonable effort to protect the student from conditions which interfere with learning or are harmful to the student's health and safety."

Dover high teachers

Bertha Spahr (left), Robert Eshbach, and Jennifer Miller, along with other teachers at Dover High School, maintain that promoting intelligent design as science is a breach of their professional and ethical responsibilities.

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Dover High

Whether or not they played an active role in the conflict, everyone in the tiny town of Dover—students, teachers, school board members, and parents—were all affected by the battle over how evolution should be taught.

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