‘Intelligent Design’ Battles Rage On

Jewish Groups Get Involved as Legal Battles Spread From State to State

By E.B. Solomont

Published January 20, 2006, issue of January 20, 2006.
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Advocates of teaching Intelligent Design in public schools suffered a major loss last month, when a judge in Dover, Pa., struck down a proposed curriculum based on the concept. But this was not the last word on the subject. In fact, battles over Intelligent Design continue to rage, with fronts spreading across America.

Parents in Lebec, Calif., a mountain town 60 miles north of Los Angeles, filed suit last week challenging the teaching of Intelligent Design in their local school; the rural school district agreed Tuesday to stop teaching the curriculum. The Ohio Board of Education set the stage for a similar suit this month, when it refused to withdraw a proposed high school curriculum that offers a critique of evolution. The Republican governor of Kentucky, Ernie Fletcher, caused a stir in his State of the Commonwealth speech January 9 by calling for his state’s schools to teach Intelligent Design.

Jewish educators, parents and attorneys have been deeply involved in the debate, and national organizations have taken public positions on the subject. All are gearing up for the battles to come.

“For large parts of the Jewish community, the notion that the Bible is a source of scientific authority is objectionable. But beyond that, it’s probably the most prominent effort today to put religion into public schools, and therefore that causes it to be an important subject for us,” said Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Congress.

Intelligent Design contradicts Darwin’s theory of evolution via natural selection by arguing that a “designer” — perhaps a divine designer — had a conscious hand in human evolution. The debate over teaching the premise in public school science classes, alongside Darwinian theories of evolution, raises questions about whether Intelligent Design is good science or actually a religious philosophy — biblical creationism by another name — and thus inappropriate for public schools.

In Dover, where eight Intelligent Design advocates were voted off the school board in 2005, United States District Court Judge John E. Jones III was clear about where he stood when he ruled in December that high school biology teachers could not be required to introduce Intelligent Design to their students: “We have concluded that [Intelligent Design] is not [science], and moreover that I.D. cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious antecedents,” he wrote, arguing that the plan violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

The Anti-Defamation League voiced concern during the Dover debate, rallying against a perceived threat to church-state separation. After Jones’s decision came down, the ADL praised it as a “win for public school students and science education.”

“For Jews and other religious minorities, it’s an important issue because the religious freedom we have through the separation of church and state has allowed us to flourish as communities and has enabled us to be equal partners in this country,” said David Barkey, associate director of national legal affairs for the ADL.

The ADL was also involved in a 2005 dispute in Cobb County, Ga., signing on to a brief in a lawsuit where plaintiffs protested a sticker that referred to evolution as a controversial theory. The local school board had ordered that the sticker be placed on schoolbooks that mention evolution. Opposing Intelligent Design as both an educational and a civil-rights issue, the ADL joined with the American Jewish Committee and other advocacy groups in filing briefs.

Jeffrey Selman — a Jewish plaintiff in the Cobb County suit, and the new president of Georgia’s chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State — told the Forward that Intelligent Design “doesn’t belong in a science class.”

“Teach it in history, fine,” he said. But as for the separation of church and state, he said, “you can’t crack that wall. It’s vital to us.”

In Kansas last November, Jews also got involved in a particularly strident dispute over Intelligent Design, when the state school board voted to have teachers instruct students that evolution is a controversial theory. While Dover and Cobb County have relatively few Jewish residents, Kansas has a more sizable community of several thousand, particularly in Wichita and the suburbs of Kansas City.

Local residents, lay leaders and individual rabbis wrote letters in local newspapers and participated in debates, but did not stand center stage in the controversy, according to Rabbi Michael Davis of Congregation Emanu-El, a Reform synagogue in Wichita. “Jews do not look at the teaching of evolution as a challenge or threat to the teachings of Judaism,” Davis said. Therefore, for most Jews, Darwinian evolution does not seem like a religiously charged issue, as it does for many Christians.

Indeed, Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, a nondenominational Jewish day school in Overland Park, Kan., teaches both evolution and creationism as described in Genesis. The school’s approach put it in the spotlight during the statewide debate over Intelligent Design, as parents and school board members expressed curiosity about how the school incorporated both theories into its curriculum. According to the head of school, Adam Holden, the academy teaches Genesis as part of its religious studies, and evolution in its college-preparatory science classes. While questioning and debate are encouraged among students, Holden said, “we work very, very hard not to have a conversation where students say, ‘Is this the truth?’ and we say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ because the minute we do that we alienate some of the students and parents in the school.”

If teaching both the theory of evolution and some variation of creationism does not, in itself, pose a religious paradox for many Jews, teaching it in public schools remains a thorny civil-liberties issue for people concerned about the separation of church and state.

“The Intelligent Design thing is clearly an attempt of the right wing to get religion in public schools,” said Rabbi Mark Levin of Congregation Beth Torah, a Reform synagogue in Overland Park. Levin — founder of MAINstream Coalition, a moderate group advocating for civil rights, reproductive rights and the separation of church and state — called Intelligent Design the major social justice issue facing Jews in Kansas — and argued that “the moderate Jewish voice needs to be out there.”

According to Robert Wolfson, regional director of the ADL’s Plain States Region, the debate over Intelligent Design “demonstrates the chipping away at the consensus we had on separation of church and state.”

“Intelligent Design and creationism are both based on literalist Christian understandings of the Bible,” said Stern, of the AJCongress. “It’s not a leap from our usual church-state position to say that you don’t teach that in public schools.”

For that reason, national Jewish groups will continue their legal fight in upcoming battles over Intelligent Design.

“If you look at the Dover case, it’s one decision by one school district. Hopefully, the effect of the decision will be that school districts think twice about implementing Intelligent Design in classrooms,” the ADL’s Barkey said. For those that don’t, he said, Jewish organizations like his are prepared for a renewed effort that includes local involvement and legal action.

“The issue of Intelligent Design is a national issue but at its base, it’s grass roots, so there’s a certain vigilance we have to have,” he said.

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