CRF Blog

Intelligent Design on Trial in 2005

by Damon Huss

Judge John Jones III (Wikimedia Commons).

Judge John Jones III (Wikimedia Commons).

Eight years ago today, the landmark trial of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District began in Pennsylvania. The issue? Whether the the local school board violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause by adopting a supplemental textbook for science classes that promoted intelligent design (ID) as an alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The school board’s policy also required science teachers to read a prepared statement encouraging students to use the book, Of Pandas and People, as a reference. Science teachers refused to read the statement.

Parents of some students sued the school board for violating the establishment clause. During the trial, one plaintiffs’ expert, Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University, demonstrated to the court that Of Pandas and People was merely a revised version of a previous text that promoted creationism. Creationism is a religious idea about the origins of life on Earth and of the universe that contradicts the theory of evolution and which the U.S. Supreme Court found to be a violation of the establishment clause when part of public-school instruction in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987).

By the end of the trial in November 2005, Federal District Court Judge John Jones III, a George W. Bush appointee, agreed with the plaintiffs. In his 139-page opinion, he wrote, “The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.” In a 2006 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Judge Jones explained the basis of his decision:

The Inquirer: Some have said your ruling wasn’t about church and state but about whether intelligent design is science.

Jones: I think that the ruling followed precedent, both the Lemon test [a three-part test, based on Supreme Court rulings, of whether a government action violates the separation of church and state] and the establishment test [from the First Amendment of the Constitution, which forbids Congress from making any law “establishing religion”], and I’m reluctant to characterize what that “means.” The controversial part of the ruling was whether intelligent design is in fact science. Lost in the post-decision debate was that both sides, plaintiffs and defense, asked me to rule on that issue. Clearly, that was resolved based on the scientific evidence presented at the trial. That portion of the opinion seems to have been scrutinized, and praised or criticized, more than the part of the decision grounded in the two tests. [more]

For more about this important case and the First Amendment in schools, see the classroom lesson “More Monkey Trials: The Evolution Debate Goes Back to Court” from Bill of Rights in Action.