Creationism in the Classroom

On November 19, 2004, the School Board of Directors of Dover, Pennsylvania announced by press release that, commencing in January 2005, teachers would be required to read the following statement to students in the ninth grade biology class at Dover High School:

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 which differs from Darwin’s view.  The reference book, Pandas and People, is available to individual 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 on preparing students to achieve proficiency on Standards-based assessments.

Not too surprisingly, the Board of Directors (who had approved the policy by a 6-3 vote) was promptly sued by a group of parents who claimed that the Intelligent Design policy of the Board violated the establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.  Since this was viewed by all sides as a test case on Intelligent Design, some liberal folks were a bit worried when they picked John E. Jones III, a Republican appointed to the United States District Court by George W. Bush, no less, to hear the case.

They needn’t have worried.

As a general rule I would hardly recommend reading legal papers as entertainment.  But then, this is not your everyday decision.  It is not just that the subject is interesting in itself, but every once in a while the judge really lets himself go.  (If you’re interested, a Google or Yahoo search under “051220_kitzmiller_342.pdf” will give lots of sites for the full decision…which is 139 pages long!)

A friend of mine once defined my job by saying, “Bill, you will boil that s___ down for us, won’t you?”  In that light, let me give you the short version.

It seems that a Mr. Alan Bonsell joined the Board in 2001 and became its president in 2004.  During a retreat soon after he joined the Board, he identified his number one issue as “creationism” and his number two issue as “school prayer.”  At another retreat the following year, he repeated these ideas.  On the stand Mr. Bonsell testified he had no recollection of making such statements, despite the existence of contemporaneous notes to that effect.

Some of these folks are just not too bright.  Bonsell not only failed to remember any of this, he actually denied having any special interest in creationism, despite the fact that his own lawyer had said he did in his opening statement.  No wonder Judge Jones said, “It is notable, and in fact incredible, that Bonsell disclaimed any interest in creationism…” and that in his judgement Bonsell “repeatedly failed to testify in a truthful manner.”

In the usual way such things happen, the Science Department Chair soon reported that  Assistant Superintendent Baksa had let her know that “a member of the Board” wanted a 50/50 split between evolution and creationism in the classroom.  Although Mr. Baksa, too, suffered a lapse of memory while testifying (he only remembered a proposed split between Darwin and “some alternative”), that conversation, too, was documented in a contemporary memo.

Baksa even went so far as to arrange a meeting between Bonsell and the school’s science teachers.  The teachers testified that the upshot of the meeting was that they became very cautious about what they taught, leaving out anything they thought might get them in trouble with the Board and Mr. Bonsell.

In effect, a shadow began to spread across the science curriculum.  This is significant because the Defendants (it’s conventional to capitalize both Defendants and Plaintiffs) in the case claimed that their goal was “promoting critical thinking” in the classroom and “improving science education.”  The judge noted that their conduct had precisely the opposite effect.

But things really began heating up in 2004, when Bonsell appointed William Buckingham to be Chair of the Curriculum Committee.  Buckingham became the real leader in promoting Intelligent Design in the science curriculum.  As Board President, Bonsell also served as an ex officio member of the Committee.

Soon after, Buckingham was contacted by an attorney for the Discovery Institute, a Seattle- based group that promotes Intelligent Design to replace creationism.  The judgement does not say so, but one suspects that Discovery Institute’s attorney informed Buckingham that, while creationism was explicitly barred from the science classroom, no such judgements had yet been made about Intelligent Design.  At any rate, the Discovery Institute forwarded Buckingham a DVD, videotape, and a book which he passed on for the science teachers.  Baksa also arranged for them to view a Discovery Institute anti-evolution video titled Icons of Evolution.

I am sure they were thrilled.

Things came to a head over the purchase of a new biology text for the school.  Somehow the approval of the new textbook, simply titled Biology, got left off the agenda of the June 2004 Board meeting when all the other texts were approved.  Buckingham clearly had not yet given up on creationism.  When Barrie Callahan, later one of the Plaintiffs, asked the Board if they were going to approve Biology, Buckingham said it was “laced with Darwinism” and spoke in favor of a text that included a balance of creationism and evolution.

Buckingham, whose testimony Judge Jones later called “largely inconsistent and non-credible,” admitted making that statement and saying that he had also said that “the separation of church and state was a myth.”  After the June meeting Buckingham was quoted as saying, “This country wasn’t founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution.  This country was founded on Christianity and our students should be taught as such.”

Given the fact that their whole defense was based on their claim that religion had played no part in their decision about Intelligent Design, this testimony and a raft of similar quotations were awkward, to say the least.  It is no wonder that Judge Jones found, “Any asserted secular purposes by the Board are a sham and are merely secondary to a religious objective.”  Regarding Board members’ denial of making these and other overtly religious statements, he said, “These witnesses either testified inconsistently or lied outright under oath.”

The courts, in a long series of decisions regarding various attempts at barring the teaching evolution and/or enforcing the teaching of creationism, had established a set of criteria for judging whether such cases violated the Establishment Clause: endorsement, effect, and purpose.  That is, whether the result of the action in question constituted an official endorsement of religion, whether an objective observer would judge that to be the actual effect of the action and would reasonably conclude that was also the purpose of the action.

Judge Jones concluded that the Board actions satisfied all three criteria for an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment clause.

The judge could have reached that conclusion based on the statements of the Board members, the impact on the community, and the turmoil it caused among the teachers, without considering whether Intelligent Design was or was not science or religion.

Thankfully, at least from my point of view, Judge Jones did more than that.  He specifically examined the nature of Intelligent Design itself, hearing expert witnesses on both sides, to decide whether Intelligent Design was a valid scientific theory that had a place in a science curriculum.

First (loud cheers from this side of the room) he looked at the definition of science itself.  He concluded that science limits itself “to testable, natural explanations about the natural world.”  And further, that it “requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify.”

Amen.

After a very thorough review, the judge concluded that “every major scientific association that has taken a position on the issue of whether I[ntelligent] D[esign] is science has concluded that it is not.”  After discussing the reasons why, in the technical arena, Intelligent Design does not fit the definition of science, the judge then ruled that, as a legal matter, it “is not science and cannot be judged as a valid scientific theory.”  He added a certain rhetorical sting when he added, “that I[ntelligent] D[esign] is an interesting theological argument, but that it is not science.”

I suspect that part of the language that made this decision so satisfying to read (“The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision…”) stems from a very simple matter: judges just hate to be lied to in their courtrooms.

Which brings up a very odd thing going on here.  We have heard the mullahs who have counseled Al Qaeda and other terrorists blandly deny any connection with such people.  We have heard anti-abortionists lie about abortion procedures, statistics and their own tactics.  We have heard of personnel from this most religious of White Houses committing perjury before grand juries.  And here we have a case of devout Christian fundamentalists lying in their teeth in a court of law.

So here is my question: How is it that people who claim not merely to be religious, abhorring sin and loving virtue, but who claim to be primarily motivated by their religious beliefs find it so easy to lie in the middle of what they see as doing God’s work?  Perhaps more importantly, why do their co-religionists not rise in outrage against them?

We see the same thing in patriotism and other areas that evoke visceral responses.  It seems to be an oddity of our species that fervor grants a certain amnesty from our normal standards.  That an excess of zeal “in a good cause,” far from tarnishing that cause, instead automatically exempts the guilty parties.  We see this every day, yet clearly our cultural wisdom knows that it is wrong:

A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit….Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

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