The Dover Monkey Trial

/ by Chris Mooney /

Chris Mooney reports on how intelligent design is hijacking science.

From the OCT/NOV 2005 issue of Seed:

chimpweb.jpg Credit: Mike Swope

Late this summer, President Bush endorsed teaching the anti-evolutionist concept of intelligent design to America’s high school students. But one community has already tried exactly that—and gotten sued for it. In August, the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania faced a community divided over biology and the bible. In attendance were parents and neighbors, co-litigants in a First Amendment legal suit. Welcome to the opening salvo in America’s latest war on science.

Resigning from the Dover Area School Board was the last thing that Jeff and Carol “Casey” Brown thought they’d ever have to do. They had poured their lives into their community’s educational problems, Jeff for five years and Casey for 10. But in a late-night discussion on October 16—the night of their 20th wedding anniversary, as it were—they realized they had little choice but to quit. Dover, the tiny township of 1,800 where they’d made their home for the past 22 years, had been radically altered. Former friends and school board colleagues were now bitter enemies, divided over a simple matter—what should be taught in ninth-grade biology at Dover High School.

Casey Brown, a tall woman with an uncompromising bent and a parliamentarian’s mastery of school board rules, precedents and procedures, first ran for the board to advocate better treatment of students with learning disabilities, like her daughter. Jeff ran for the board because he was fed up with what he viewed as rampant cronyism and corruption. “I made a little cardboard button, took off a day of work and I got elected,” he remembers.

That was back when Dover was still a sleepy place, long before most Americans had heard of the town or the New York Times assigned a reporter to cover its school board races. And it was long before the Dover board drove away the Browns, made national headlines, triggered a lawsuit for refuting Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and introduced students to the concept of intelligent design, or ID.

Now, with a highly visible federal trial beginning on September 27, amid a national and international uproar prompted by President Bush’s own endorsement of ID, the press is depicting Dover as the 21st-century equivalent of Dayton, Tennessee, site of the famous 1925 Scopes monkey trial. But there’s a key difference between the Scopes era and today: Anti-evolutionists seem to be abandoning the Dover confrontation like a sinking ship. They have plans elsewhere—particularly in the state of Kansas.

As a result, Dover represents something very different and perhaps more poignant. It’s among the first towns to fall victim to a divisive religious and scientific battle that is building to a fever pitch—one that promises to tear apart many more communities before it’s finally settled.

Jeff and Casey were on the front lines as the fight engulfed their town; in fact, they inadvertently facilitated it by choosing the wrong political allies. After their election to the nine-person school board, the Browns began to seek like-minded acquaintances to run for seats alongside them. They turned to a group of conservative Christians, who were soon elected. Together, they formed a majority on the board. The Dover area was home to a wide diversity of sects, including Mennonites, Lutherans, Brethren and Amish, and had a long-standing live-and-let-live tradition. “All of us were good friends, and religion didn’t really enter into it,” recalls Casey. Then things began to change.

In 2003, the Dover board proposed sending a letter to the U.S. Supreme Court that defended using the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Jeff, himself a Christian and a former Sunday school teacher, balked, asking if the board would also support the phrase “under Allah.” Casey, an Episcopalian, also declared her opposition. But their views were in the minority, and the letter was sent.

In 2004, as the Seattle-based Discovery Institute—national hub of the intelligent design movement—impelled a new wave of fights over the teaching of evolution across the country, the Dover board pushed its own pro-ID agenda. Curriculum committee chair William Buckingham, a conservative Christian, denounced a widely accepted biology textbook as being “laced with Darwinism.” The 57-year-old former police officer and prison guard (who often denounced the notion of the separation of church and state as a myth) encouraged the search for a book that supported creationism, stating, “Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?” In another candid (and legally liable) moment, he added, “This country wasn’t founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution. This country was founded on Christianity, and our students should be taught as such.” (Although they were reported in local papers, Buckingham later contested these statements.)

The Browns were shocked, but their former friend had strong support on the board and in the community. Shortly thereafter, he announced a mysterious “donation” to the high-school: 50 copies of a textbook entitled Of Pandas and People, published by the Texas-based Foundation on Thought and Ethics, a Christian organization. The book argues that natural processes cannot sufficiently explain the complexity of life, and that “intelligent causes” must, instead, be invoked. Officially, the donation was anonymous. Unofficially—as was later alleged in court filings—the books came after Buckingham solicited donations for them at his own church.

apetoman.jpg A Dover High School janitor destroyed a mural of an ape-to-man progression like the one shown above in 2002.  Bulent Ince

According to Jeff and Casey, Buckingham and his supporters had, by then, stopped listening to the couple’s dissenting opinions. “It’s one thing to be at war with your political enemies and I’d done that for years,” says Jeff. “But when my friends turned into enemies, I just reached the end of the rope.”

On Monday, October 18, two days after the Browns’ anniversary, the board sealed their fate, and its own. It voted six to three to endorse the following change to the biology curriculum:

Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.

The Browns promptly announced their resignations; Casey read an eloquent statement declaring that as the evolution fight unfolded, board members had twice demanded to know whether she had been “born again.”

“It has become increasingly evident that, in the direction this board has now chosen to go, holding a certain religious belief is of paramount importance,” she said. In a deposition, Jeff Brown would later charge that, after he and Casey decided to resign, they were labeled “atheists” by pro-ID board member Alan Bonsell.

Shortly after the vote on ID, eleven parents of Dover High School students engaged the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the Pennsylvania law firm of Pepper Hamilton. They filed suit over the board’s decision. “I want my daughter to have her religious education but I want to be responsible for it, or maybe the church we attend,” says plaintiff Steve Stough, a Republican and a Christian who, like Jeff and Casey Brown, accepts evolution. “And no matter how you describe it, this whole thing was a shot at religious education.”

Dover’s science and religion rift goes back several years, as is illustrated by an event that took place over summer recess in 2002. While Dover high school students and teachers were on break, a high school janitor removed a large student-painted mural from its place in one of the school’s science labs and set it on fire. The massive, colorful piece of artwork—taking up two four-foot by eight-foot plywood sheets—depicted an evolutionary progression of ape-like humanoids, running across grassland as they gradually became modern man. It had been commissioned by the science department itself, and it took its student creator a full semester to complete.

In picking a fight over evolution, the Dover board had exacerbated precisely what the authors of the U.S. Constitution sought to prevent with the First Amendment: Religious schisms in American communities. This fall, the Dover Area School Board’s actions will be judged according to the amendment—as well as by precedents set by the long string of evolution lawsuits that punctuated U.S. history during the 20th century.

The fight against evolution in America has never really ended; it has only changed form—for legal and cultural reasons, rather than scientific ones. The 1925 Scopes monkey trial—memorialized in the play and film Inherit the Wind—took place after John Scopes, a first-year science teacher, deliberately violated Tennessee’s explicit anti-evolution statute, which stated that “it shall be unlawful for any teacher to teach any law that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Prosecutor William Jennings Bryan defended the literal authority of the Bible and argued that science and religion are locked in inevitable conflict—evolution and biblical truth could never be reconciled. Clarence Darrow, the ACLU criminal defense lawyer, sought to show that the theory of evolution is perfectly compatible with equally valid, but non-literal, readings of scripture.

What’s less frequently remembered about the Scopes trial is its somewhat ignominious conclusion. Scopes was convicted for doing what he had inarguably done: violated existing law. Because Scopes was later acquitted on a technicality, the ACLU could not appeal and seek a strong precedent in support of the separation of religion and science education. The cultural legacy of this trial clearly advanced the creationist cause in America. Other states passed anti-evolution laws; publishers of high school biology textbooks self-censored to conform. Then, in the 1960s, after the Soviets launched Sputnik, the US government increased spending on scientific research and education, promoting evolution at the high school level. The challenge to creationist sentiment and school board policy ignited a second chapter in the history of battles over the teaching of evolution in schools. This time, though, the anti-evolutionists were on the defensive.

In 1968, the US Supreme Court overturned an Arkansas anti-evolution law very similar to the Tennessee law violated by Scopes, calling it an affront to church-state separation and the First Amendment. In the wake of this new precedent, the anti-evolutionist legal strategy advocated “equal time” legislation, calling for the inclusion of both evolution and creationism (which creationists now labeled “scientific”) in high school biology. 1981s McLean v. Arkansas was fought over that state’s “balanced treatment for creation-science and evolution-science” Act 590. In a case closely resembling what’s now happening in Dover, the ACLU challenged the law’s constitutionality, leading to a lengthy and involved federal trial in which both sides, wielding dueling “experts,” claimed to have science on their side. The ACLU sought to prove that “creation science” was in fact nothing of the kind, and Judge William Overton ruled strongly in the group’s favor.

In 1987, the US Supreme Court ruled that Louisiana’s “balanced treatment” law was also unconstitutional, favorably citing McLean. Both courts pronounced that “creation science” was, in essence, a fraud—religion masquerading as a valid scientific explanation just to get past legal barriers. With their “creation science” strategies struck down by the Supreme Court, anti-evolutionists almost immediately launched another tactic: They morphed into defenders of “intelligent design.”

According to court filings, certain Dover board members pushed for the teaching of outright creationism long before they accepted a donation of anti-evolution textbooks from a local church. It was also long before they embraced ID—which is, itself, inherently theological, as the ACLU and co-litigants argue, because it postulates a designer who is “intelligent.”

“The purposes and effect of the [intelligent design] policy are to advance and endorse the specific religious viewpoint and beliefs encompassed by the assertion or argument of intelligent design,” the Dover lawsuit charges. When set in the context of Supreme Court legal precedents, the Dover board’s actions would appear to leave it thoroughly exposed—relatively easy pickings for civil-libertarian lawyers who have defended evolution against religious onslaughts again and again in recent history.

If battling over culturally divisive issues like evolution can be destructive to a community, it can also be quite expensive in terms of legal fees; Dover, which Casey Brown calls a “bedroom community,” is a relatively poor area with a modest tax base. If, as seems increasingly likely, the Dover board—represented pro-bono by the Thomas More Law Center of Ann Arbor, Michigan, which describes itself as dedicated to “defending and promoting the religious freedom of Christians” —loses its case, the fiscal penalty (comprised of the considerable legal expenses for the ACLU and co-litigants) could be substantial. The religious strife that Dover has already experienced may pale in comparison to the attacks and finger-pointing that will assuredly follow if Dover taxpayers have to underwrite a lawsuit that their elected school board inflicted upon the district.

From a practical standpoint, the emphasis on having to defend a federal lawsuit has almost certainly taken a toll on education in Dover. “How many hundreds and thousands of hours have been wasted on this already, by the administrators, the support staff, the teachers?” asks Casey Brown. “The time that was being spent on ID was not being spent on identifying at-risk kids,” adds her husband.

darwin.jpg Statue of Charles Darwin (Shrewsbury Library, England)Ian Campbell

And for what greater cause is Dover making all these sacrifices? Sadly, it may be for none at all. Even as the national media lionizes the Dover case as a new Scopes trial, top-tier anti-evolutionists have strategically backed away from it. In June, three leading Discovery Institute-affiliated ID advocates had their names removed from the list of experts slated to testify in court on behalf of the Dover school district. This, despite the fact that several Discovery fellows penned a 2000 Utah Law Review article, claiming that introducing ID into science classes—exactly the Dover board’s strategy—is constitutionally permissible and legally defensible.

No longer the second-coming of the Scopes trial, the Dover situation is looking more and more like the mess nobody in the creationist camp wants to clean up. Even notorious Republican senator Rick Santorum, who last year stood by the Dover board’s actions like a proud parent, is now pulling back from openly pushing for intelligent design in science classes. Santorum has relinquished his pro-ID stance; the Dover board, however, cannot. The national ID movement is backing away from Dover as though it’s a village that must be sacrificed in the early stages of a long military campaign.

The Discovery Institute’s updated strategy, which doesn’t explicitly introduce ID into classes, is called “teach the controversy.” Having manufactured a national debate through its widespread questioning of evolutionary biology—and through at least implicitly encouraging actions like that of Dover’s school board—the Discovery Institute now points to the alleged “controversy” itself as a topic that American students need to understand. It’s quite effective: school board members are only encouraging “critical thinking” about evolution. ID proponents can watch as evolution is questioned in class; they won’t need to run the legal risk of explicitly advocating religious views or talking about an “intelligent designer.”

After the Dover case runs its course, or perhaps even sooner, some locality’s “teach the controversy” policy will probably spark the next legal battle over evolution; Kansas seems the likely front-runner. Although it hasn’t finalized anything as of this writing, the anti-evolution majority on the Kansas State Board of Education has been pushing a Discovery Institute-friendly “critical analysis” of the teaching of evolution, intended for the state’s science standards. They’re also pushing a redefinition of science for the board’s purposes, so that it would no longer be limited to naturally-occurring phenomena—providing ID with the chance to call itself science. But Kansas, unlike Dover, has carefully avoided introducing the words “intelligent design” into the standards, a strategic posture that may put it on somewhat stronger legal footing.

That’s no consolation for Dover, which won’t easily heal from its current battle. The nature of the Dover situation was apparent at the board’s August meeting. There, parents in the audience discussed the abrupt disappearance of William Buckingham, the political leader of the Dover board’s actions.

After the media descended and the lawsuit was filed, Buckingham denied making his infamous statement about defending Jesus in America’s classrooms. Not long thereafter, citing health problems, he sold his house and moved to North Carolina. At the meeting, the school superintendent read Buckingham’s resignation statement. Though they’d followed his lead into potentially costly litigation, none of his former school-board allies made use of the opportunity to comment on his influential tenure.

Jeff and Casey Brown were not present that day, though their side of the fight was well represented: Sitting in the back of the room were the parents who had filed suit against the board. “For the person who spearheaded this whole movement, to see him bail at this point in time disturbs me,” said Steve Stough, one of the plaintiffs.

Buckingham’s southward flight seems symbolic of the Dover board’s problematic legal situation. While there is a new religious challenge to evolution afoot, Dover seems increasingly unlikely to represent the deciding battle—yet the town’s experience is all the more revealing for precisely that reason. Rather than fighting science with science, Dover illustrates that the evolution conflict on the horizon is likely to feature ever-shifting legal strategies, broken allegiances and communities hung out to dry. It will be a conflict, in short, where the very essence of the anti-evolutionists’ tactics demonstrates the legal and scientific weakness of their position.

Originally published October 1, 2005

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