The think tank regarded as the leading proponent of “intelligent design” theory reacted strongly to U.S. District Judge John E. Jones’ ruling yesterday against the Dover, Pa., school board, calling him “an activist judge who has delusions of grandeur.”
“The Dover decision is an attempt by an activist federal judge to stop the spread of a scientific idea and even to prevent criticism of Darwinian evolution through government-imposed censorship rather than open debate, and it won’t work,” said John West, associate director of the Center for Science and Culture at Discovery Institute in Seattle.
Jones ruled against an October 2004 school board policy that required students of a ninth-grade biology class in the Dover Area School District to hear a one-minute statement that says evolution is a theory, and intelligent design “is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.”
Proponents of intelligent design say it draws on recent discoveries in physics, biochemistry and related disciplines that indicate some features of the natural world are best explained as the product of an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process such as natural selection. Proponents include scientists at numerous universities and science organizations worldwide.
Jones determined Dover board members violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on congressional establishment of religion and charged that several members lied to cover their motives even while professing religious beliefs.
“The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy,” Jones wrote. “It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.”
West asserted Jones “conflated Discovery Institute’s position with that of the Dover School Board, and he totally misrepresents intelligent design and the motivations of the scientists who research it.”
The judge reached “well beyond the immediate legal questions before him,” West contended, offering “wide-ranging and sometimes angry comments denouncing intelligent design and praising Darwinian evolution.”
“Judge Jones found that the Dover board violated the Establishment Clause because it acted from religious motives. That should have been the end to the case,” said West. “Instead, Judge Jones got on his soapbox to offer his own views of science, religion, and evolution. He makes it clear that he wants his place in history as the judge who issued a definitive decision about intelligent design. This is an activist judge who has delusions of grandeur.”
Jones anticipated the charge of judicial activism, writing in his opinion:
Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has not been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.
Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, the group founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, praised the ruling, saying the court has made it clear that intelligent design is “simply rhetorical camouflage for promoting religious beliefs and accounts.”
“The fact is that proponents of intelligent design simply have not made their case, and their claims have not met the burden of evidence,” she said.
Discovery Institute attorney Casey Luskin said, however, he believes the decision will be of “minor significance” in the larger debate over intelligent design.
“As we’ve repeatedly stressed, the ultimate validity of intelligent design will be determined not by the courts but by the scientific evidence pointing to design,” Luskin said.
West is confident the ruling will only provide fuel for the debate.
“Americans don’t like to be told there is some idea that they aren’t permitted to learn about,” he said. “It used to be said that banning a book in Boston guaranteed it would be a bestseller. Banning intelligent design in Dover will likely only fan interest in the theory.”
Luskin pointed out that the ruling applies only to the federal district in which it was handed down.
The decision likely will not be appealed, he said, because the recently elected Dover school board members campaigned on their opposition to the policy.
“The plans of the lawyers on both sides of this case to turn this into a landmark ruling have been preempted by the voters,” Luskin said.
West said the Discovery Institute continues to oppose efforts to mandate teaching about the theory of intelligent design in public schools.
“But the Institute strongly supports the freedom of teachers to discuss intelligent design in an objective manner on a voluntary basis,” he said. “We also think students should learn about both the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwin’s theory of evolution.”
West said a legal ruling “can’t change the fact that there is digital code in DNA, it can’t remove the molecular machines from the cell, nor change the fine tuning of the laws of physics.”
“The empirical evidence for design, the facts of biology and nature, can’t be changed by legal decree,” he insisted.
Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel for the Thomas More Law Center, which represented the school board members, said the decision shows “our present Establishment Clause jurisprudence, as several Supreme Court justices have noted, is in hopeless disarray and in need of substantial revision.”
“The founders of this country would be astonished at the thought that this simple curriculum change ‘established religion’ in violation of the Constitution that they drafted,” Thompson said.