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Protecting the Bill of Rights in Utah since 1958

Divine Design

ACLU of Utah Reporter: Fall 2005

This spring, State Senator Chris Buttars gave Utahns a heads-up on one legislative issue we may soon be facing when he stated that he wants Utah public schools to teach “divine design” alongside the scientific theory of evolution. His efforts to bring divine design (aka intelligent design) to Utah schools received a significant and unexpected boost when President George Bush stated in August that he also believes teachers should explain intelligent design when discussing evolution.

Ever since the famous 1925 Scopes “monkey trial,” in which the ACLU defended a Tennessee teacher convicted of teaching evolution, opponents to the scientific theory of evolution have attempted to forbid, limit, or otherwise undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools. Challenges have included laws or policies to prohibit the teaching of evolution, to require teachers to make statements or disclaimers questioning the validity of the scientific theory of evolution, and to require teachers to present anti-evolutionary views, including religious views not based on scientific evidence such as creationism, and more recently, intelligent or divine design.

Intelligent design is a belief that the origin and development of living organisms cannot adequately be explained by the scientific theory of evolution and natural selection, and require instead the action of a supernatural and intelligent creator.

As Governor Jon Huntsman recognizes, the Establishment Clause does not require that intelligent design be banned from the school curriculum. Calling the ideology “science” and teaching it in a science class, however, is a problem. Teaching for the purposes of furthering a religious doctrine or protecting that doctrine from another theory is constitutionally forbidden. That’s what the United States Supreme Court found with regards to creationism in 1987. And that is what the ACLU of Pennsylvania is at this moment arguing in federal court with regards to a Dover School District policy that requires high school science teachers to read a statement questioning the theory of evolution and presenting intelligent design as an alternative.

In its brief, the ACLU of Pennsylvania argues that intelligent design is inherently a religious argument that falls outside the realm of science. The school district policy essentially mandates that Dover public schools treat intelligent design as a bona fide scientific theory competing with the theory of evolution. The brief accurately points out that school board members confuse the everyday meaning of the word “theory” with the scientific meaning, which requires an explanation that is testable, grounded in evidence, and able to predict natural phenomena better than competing theories. There is no way to prove or disprove the existence of a supernatural creator, and opponents of evolution are in effect asking the government to give the prestigious label of “science” to their personal religious beliefs.

While intelligent design proponents claim that the theory is not religious, they are often unable to hide their religious motives. For example, an internal memo from the Discovery Institute, the organization behind much of the recent push to teach intelligent design, states that the purpose of advocating intelligent design is “[t]o defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies” and “[t]o replace materialistic explanations with theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”

Another example comes from the Dover controversy, which began with a dispute over the purchase of a high school biology textbook. School board member William Buckingham stated that he and others were looking for a book that offered a balance between the biblical view of creation and Darwin’s theory of evolution. He also said there need not be any consideration for the beliefs of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, or other competing faiths and views because, “[t]his country wasn’t founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution. This country was founded on Christianity and our students should be taught as such.”

And finally, in an opinion piece printed in USA Today in August, Senator Buttars stated that “those fighting against the teaching of intelligent design in schools have an ulterior motive to eliminate references to God from the entire public forum.”

The Supreme Court has already held that requiring public schools to teach creation science along with evolution violated the Establishment Clause because the belief that a supernatural being is responsible for the creation of human kind is a religious viewpoint. Arguments in the Dover case began September 26. In Utah, we’ll watch the proceedings with interest and prepare for a lively debate next legislative session.
Excerpt from a statement teachers must read to students in the Dover High School ninth grade biology class:

“Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it is still being 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 that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People is available for students to see if they would like to explore this view in an effort to gain an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves. As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind.”