The science classroom, the courts, local and state school boards are the battlegrounds, and the battle is over what should be taught in public school about how the earth and human beings came to be. The debate over whether the theory of evolution, intelligent design or both should be taught in science class comes as questions are being raised about whether U.S. students are learning what they need to become scientifically literate adults in the 21st century.

What is intelligent design?

Proponents of intelligent design, such as Casey Luskin, the program officer for public policy and legal affairs for Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle, WA, believe that some parts of nature are too complex to be solely explained by the theory of evolution and therefore there is some unspecified “intelligent source” that has “designed” the universe. They speak of intelligent design as science, rather than religion.

“Intelligent design is a scientific theory which states that some aspects of nature are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected cause such as natural selection,” says Luskin. He believes that teachers should not be forced to teach about intelligent design but that those who understand it and want to teach it should have the right to do so in high school biology classes.

The vast majority of scientists, however, reject intelligent design as an essentially religious and scientifically unverifiable belief, and say that evolution is one of the most thoroughly tested explanations in science. Regardless, backers of intelligent design believe that schools should at least “teach the controversy.”

What should parents do?

1. Find out where your state ranks in terms of science standards.

Find out what topics and benchmarks are included in the standards. “State science standards are important,” notes Susan Spath. “Citizens need to support good strong science standards because they give teachers a strong reference point. Teachers can say, ‘I have to teach it this way. It’s in the standards.'”

2. Keep an eye on proposed state legislation regarding science education.

“Anti-evolution legislation may be proposed in at least 10 states this year and there could be more,” says Spath. She advices parents to be aware when citizens’ committees are set up to monitor science standards and feels that it is more appropriate for scientists and science teachers to be the ones providing oversight.

3. Find out how science is taught in your school and district, and where your district and school board stand on the issue.

Check to see how your school and school district interpret the First Amendment and what the separation of church and state means in your child’s classroom. According to the First Amendment and recent court decisions, schools may not teach religion in public schools but they are permitted to teach about religion.

4. Take a serious looks at the cadidates running for your local school board.

Find out where they stand on the teaching of evolution and intelligent design in your school.

5. Check your child’s science textbook to see how evolution is described.

6. Check with your child’s science teacher to find out where evolution first in the curriculum and how it is taught.

Who are its proponents?

The Discovery Institute of Seattle supports challenging the theory of evolution. The Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, supplied the lawyers to argue the first case defending the inclusion of intelligent design in the high school science curriculum.

What do the state science standards say?

According to a 2005 Education Week of state science standards from 41 states, 39 state standards documents offer some description of biological evolution and how it accounts for the diversity of species that exist today, while 35 of these documents go further and give similar treatment to Darwin’s principle of natural selection.

What’s the difference between intelligent design and creationism?

Creationism is more clearly based upon religion than intelligent design. Creationists believe that God made the world and all living things. Intelligent design proponents do not say who created the world, just that there is evidence of some higher source involved in the world’s design. They do not specify who or what that source is. But because they don’t mention religion, they believe their view is secular and thus has a place in science curriculum. Many of their critics believe that intelligent design is “thinly veiled creationism.”

“Intelligent design is a form of creationism in our book,” says Susan Spath, public information project director at the National Center for Science Education, a national clearinghouse for information and advice on keeping evolution in the science classroom. “The 1987 Supreme Court decision said creation science was religious belief and therefore could not be taught in public schools.”

What is the theory of evolution?

Charles Darwin, author of “The Origin of Species,” (published in 1859) advanced the theory of evolution, which states that humans and other living creatures came from common ancestors and have changed over time through a process of “random mutation” and “natural selection.” A scientific theory, such as the theory of evolution, is not a guess but rather an overarching explanation that pulls together tested facts and observation, which can be used to make predictions about nature.

In 2005 new DNA evidence and research at the Broad Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University further validated the theory of evolution. Scientists there were able to determine that there is only a 4 percent difference between human and chimpanzee DNA. This new evidence is the latest of many discoveries in recent years in genetics, biochemistry, geology and paleontology that lend further credence to the theory of evolution.

What’s the conflict and what are the issues?

Proponents of intelligent design believe that intelligent design should be taught in school science classes, or at the very least, “teach the controversy.” Opponents feel that intelligent design and other views about the creation of life that refer to some “higher source” should not be taught in science classes because there is no scientific basis for their inclusion and teaching about a “higher source” violates the First Amendment, the separation of church and state.

Derek Davis, Director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University, Texas, says, ” Proponents of intelligent design argue that this is not a remaking of creationism—that intelligent design is science and not religion. My own sense is that it is just a substitute for creationism; it has some indicia of scientific inquiry but relies on a religious notion; something that cannot be explained.”

Davis believes that in a pluralistic society, such as the United States, teaching religion in the classroom leads to persecution. “The state cannot advance religious ideas. It leads to too close a relation between church and state,” he says. “The courts have said it’s okay to teach about religion but not teach religious truth. It’s fine to teach the history of religion, the role of religion in art or music as part of history, or in comparative religion courses. Science should be science. Keep the discipline pure.”

Davis affirms there is a place for intelligent design but not in science classes. He advocates that school districts add “issues” classes that discuss “hot-button topics of the day” such as intelligent design, abortion and the death penalty. “There’s no end to the number of these subjects,” he says.

Most scientists argue that there is no controversy to be taught, because scientists for the most part are in agreement with the theory of evolution. Yet, the National Science Teachers Association recently reported that three out of 10 teachers feel pressure from students and parents to include alternatives to evolution in their science lessons.

What is the role of the school board?

School boards and state legislatures across the country are faced with the issue. In at least 16 states, policymakers are taking a close look at the debate and its implications for what is taught in school. And efforts to raise questions about the teaching of evolution and/or promote alternatives have occurred in more than 30 states.

Overseeing the curriculum is one of the roles of the school board. School boards approve textbook adoptions and curriculum, and as a result, have been drawn into the intelligent design vs. evolution debate, or in many cases, have brought the debate themselves to the attention of the board.

The question is how far should school boards go on this issue? Their role is to decide if course content is academically sound and to be sure textbooks are chosen that are in line with state-level academic standards, but not necessarily to decide what specifically is taught.

In addition, there is no law that requires school boards to approve state-recommended curriculum or to use state academic frameworks. But the schools in the district they oversee will be judged on student performance on state standardized tests, which are based on these academic frameworks, and the school board is ultimately responsible for the success of its students.

How have the courts ruled?

In Pennsylvania

In the first court case that has been decided regarding the teaching of intelligent design, Katzmiller vs. Dover Area School District, in December 2005, Judge John E. Jones III ruled in federal court in Harrisburg, PA that intelligent design is religion, not science, and that teaching intelligent design violates the First Amendment and the separation of church and state. In his 139-page opinion, Judge Jones wrote that intelligent design is “a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory” that must not be taught in a public school science class.

The case only has jurisdiction in the Dover, PA area, but may well have implications for future cases. The $1 million in legal fees that the local school board must now pay as a result of the judgment may discourage other school boards from becoming embroiled in the issue.

The case was brought by 11 parents of children in the Dover School District when the Dover Area School Board voted to include a brief statement as part of the ninth grade biology curriculum that questioned the Darwinian theory of evolution and referred students to an alternative Christian textbook entitled Of Pandas and People.

In early January 2006, the newly elected Dover Area School Board rescinded the former school board’s policy that required teachers to include a statement about intelligent design in ninth grade biology lessons on evolution. Most of the board members who had voted for the previous policy did not win re-election.

In Georgia

In Cobb County, GA, schools placed a sticker on biology textbooks that stated that evolution is “a theory, not a fact” and should be “approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.” In January 2005, a federal judge ruled that that sticker is unconstitutional. The county school board voted to appeal the decision, and a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals is expected in spring 2006.

How the courts have historically handled the teaching of evolution

The courts originally got involved in this issue back in 1925 with the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” in which Tennessee high school teacher John Scopes was prosecuted and convicted for teaching the Darwinian theory of evolution. Although the case brought the theory of evolution into the limelight, Scopes lost the case and the teaching of evolution didn’t resurface as an issue until 1968.

Between 1925 and 1968, in an effort to skirt the issue, most textbook publishers had pretty well eliminated Darwin and the theory of evolution from biology textbooks. But beginning in 1958, on the occasion of the centenary of Darwin’s famous work, “The Origin of Species,” the National Science Foundation launched a campaign to get top biologists to rewrite science textbooks to include evolution. In 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court began striking down laws that banned the teaching of evolution.

In 1982 a federal court in Arkansas ruled against a state statute requiring public schools to give a “balanced treatment for creation-science and evolution-science” on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment. In Edwards vs. Aguillard, in 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Lousiana’s Creationism Act, which forbid the teaching of the theory of evolution in public elementary and secondary schools unless accompanied by instruction in the theory of “creation science” was unconstitutional because it endorsed the teaching of religious beliefs. However, the Supreme Court judgment did point out that “a law intended to maximize the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of science instruction would encourage the teaching of all scientific theories about human origins.”

The debate rages on

Even if intelligent design is banned from some school biology courses, the debate rages on. John G. West, associate director of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, and associate professor of political science at Seattle Pacific University, wrote in a recent editorial in USA Today: “Those who think they can stop the growing interest in intelligent design through court orders or intimidation are deluding themselves. Americans don’t like being told there are some ideas they aren’t permitted to investigate. Try to ban an idea, and you will generate even more interest in it.”

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