A legal battle is currently raging over whether it is constitutional to teach the theory of intelligent design (ID) in public school science classrooms. The controversy started when the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, required science teachers to read a 4-paragraph disclaimer that mentions intelligent design as an alternative to Darwinian evolutionary theory as an explanation for biological origins. Within two months, the ACLU helped file a lawsuit to ban the disclaimer, and intelligent design, from Dover classrooms.

This past week, the Discovery Institute filed an Amicus Curiae (Friend of the Court) brief supporting the school district in its claim that it is constitutional to teach students about the theory of intelligent design in science classes. But the story is a bit more complicated than that.

Ever since Dover instituted its disclaimer policy, the Discovery Institute has opposed it publicly, because it requires teachers to teach a subject about which they may know very little. Unfortunately, many critics of intelligent design have promulgated an urban legend about the theory, wrongly contending that it claims "life is so complex that it could not have evolved, therefore God must have done it."

Such a straw-man version of intelligent design is widely believed to be true, and science teachers as a whole could themselves use a course in intelligent design before it should be mandated. Additionally, the meaning of the policy is difficult to interpret, and it employs controversial "evolution is theory . not fact" language. Nonetheless, intelligent design is a bona fide scientific theory, and there is nothing unconstitutional about teaching about intelligent design in the science classroom. Most important, as a matter of academic freedom, teachers should be able to mention these scientific ideas in the classroom without fear of threats from the ACLU.

It is no secret that ID theory is a fairly young scientific theory, currently supported by a minority of scientists. But the scientific community is debating it. In the past year, three peer-reviewed research articles have been published in mainstream scientific journals supporting ID theory. In the past five years, three high-profile academic publishers-including Cambridge University, Michigan State University, and MIT Press-have published volumes with articles from pro-ID and anti-ID scholars debating the scientific merits of intelligent design.

Unfortunately, when school boards mandate the teaching of such a new and controversial idea, they politicize a debate that should be taking place among scientists, free from political considerations. Schools boards are best advised to require the teaching of something long-established in the literature: that Neo-Darwinism fails to account for much of what we observe in biology.

The difference between Dover and Scopes

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  • Yet despite Dover's poor policy choices, they did nothing unconstitutional simply by requiring that teachers mention ID. So why the lawsuit? To greatly oversimplify this case, the ACLU's arguments can be broken into three categories:

  • Dover had predominantly religious motivations, and did not rely upon secular purposes, in enacting their policy.

  • Dover's policy employs "evolution is theory . not fact" language, which has a primary effect of advancing religion.

  • Intelligent design is an "inherently religious view" such that teaching it will in all circumstances, have a primary effect of advancing religion.
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