Dec. 20 (Bloomberg) -- A Pennsylvania school district can't teach ``intelligent design,' which suggests a divine power created the universe, a judge ruled in a case that may discourage other challenges to the theory of evolution.
U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, ruled today that the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board can't force the teaching in high school of intelligent design, which states that the universe is too complex to have developed randomly.
``The secular purposes claimed by the board amount to a pretext for the board's real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom,'' Jones wrote in his 139- page opinion.
The board in October 2004 ordered that intelligent design be taught alongside the theory developed by Charles Darwin that life developed through natural selection. The six-week trial drew national attention as the first over the merits of intelligent design.
Religious conservatives have proposed introducing the theory in other school districts, a move critics claim would violate a 200-year-old ``wall of separation'' between church and state.
``To preserve the separation of church and state'' mandated by the First Amendment, the Dover Area School District is barred from maintaining the intelligent design policy in any school, Jones wrote. ``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.'' Dover is 91 miles west of Philadelphia.
Neither defense attorney Richard Thompson nor plaintiff attorney Eric Rothschild returned phone calls seeking comment. A spokeswoman for Rothschild's firm, Pepper Hamilton LLP, said a conference call will be held at 1:30 p.m.
President George W. Bush, who made bolstering education the centerpiece of his first term, said in an Aug. 1 interview with Texas newspaper reporters that schools should teach both evolution and intelligent design ``so people can understand what the debate is about.''
Jones was appointed by Bush in 2002. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said she had no immediate comment and referred to Bush's August comment. She said that was the only time the president had been asked about the controversy.
``Since it's the first such ruling, if you are a school board lawyer and your job is to keep your school board out of trouble, you will be paying attention to what the district court says in Pennsylvania,'' said Brian Landsberg, constitutional law professor at University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law, Sacramento, California.
The ruling can be challenged at a federal appeals court in Philadelphia and then to the U.S. Supreme Court. For now, its legal effect is limited to the Dover school board. It is not a binding precedent on other school districts.
In his opinion, Jones said the key issue is ``whether Intelligent Design is science,'' and said, ``we have concluded that it is not.''
Jones said the concept of intelligent design ``cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.''
The ruling ``has potential impact'' across the country because ``it's a piece of ammunition that will be used'' by the winning party, Landsberg said.
Dover voters ousted eight of the nine school-board members who backed the plan in November. The ninth wasn't up for re- election. The vote came the same day the Kansas school board adopted statewide science standards casting doubt on evolution.
Eight Dover families filed the federal lawsuit last December, accusing the board of threatening to fire science teachers who refused to give creationism equal weight with evolution.
``Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross,'' the board's leading proponent of intelligent design said during a discussion of the issue, according to the suit. ``Can't someone take a stand for him?''
Jones criticized board leaders for attempting to distance themselves from their own actions and statements.
``The thought leaders on the board made it their considered purpose to inject some form of creationism into the science classrooms, and by the dint of their personalities and persistence they were able to pull the majority of the board along in their collective wake,'' Jones wrote.
The phrase ``intelligent design'' was first widely used in ``Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins,'' a textbook the Dover district is using as a reference book in the high school's library.
Georgetown University theology Professor John Haught testified during the trial that intelligent design is similar to creationism and should be taught as religion and not science. Religiously motivated foes of Darwin's theory have promoted intelligent design for the past 15 years, according to the suit. They are led by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which describes itself as a nonpartisan think tank.
In September, six Nobel laureates joined about 200 scientific and religious leaders in urging all 50 U.S. state governors to insist that schools teach evolution and oppose religiously inspired alternatives. Intelligent-design classes might harm the U.S.'s economic competitiveness by weakening the teaching of biology and genetics, they said.
``Today's decision recognizes, along with the voters of Dover, that attempts to impose religious beliefs as an alternative science cannot constitutionally be forced by law upon students and their families,'' said Ira Glasser, former head of the American Civil Liberties Union, in an e-mailed statement.
The case is: Kitzmiller et al v. Dover Area School District, 04cv2688, U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg).
To contact the reporter on this story:
Sophia Pearson in Wilmington, Delaware Spearson3@bloomberg.net
Last Updated: December 20, 2005 11:56 EST