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Intelligent Design Hits Snag in Calif. Schools

The opening salvo in the next battle over intelligent design has been fired.

Coming off a major legal victory in Pennsylvania last month, opponents of intelligent design are seeking to replicate that win in California. Last month, a federal judge in Harrisburg, Pa., ruled that intelligent design cannot be taught in public school science class as an alternative to evolutionary theory. Intelligent design posits that life is too complex to have evolved through random mutation, but must have been guided by an "intelligence."

On Tuesday, opponents of intelligent design took the battle from science class to philosophy class. Eleven parents sued the El Tejon Unified School District in California for offering an elective course about the origin of life. The four-week elective course, called "Philosophy of Design," is being offered at Frazier Mountain High School in Lebec, a rural town north of Los Angeles.

Even before the opening class last week, the course was drawing ire from parents and science teachers alike. One concern was the course description, which said the class would look at scientific, biological and biblical ideas that "suggest that Darwin's philosophy is not rock solid."

"It's a way to sneak religion into public schools," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is representing the 11 parents. "It's very clever, but it's unpersuasive."

No one from the El Tejon school district was available for comment Tuesday. But supporters of intelligent design said that the California lawsuit is disingenuous. Casey Luskin, an attorney at the Discovery Institute, a group that promotes intelligent design, notes that all along critics of the idea have argued that while intelligent design is not science and therefore should not be taught in science class, it is a valid topic in other courses.

"They've been saying all along, it's perfectly fine to present intelligent design in a philosophy course or a social science course," he said. "Barry Lynn himself has said that. Now they're going and suing people for doing just that."

John Wight, the superintendent of El Tejon Unified School District, made that argument when he refused requests by parents and Americans United lawyers to cancel the class. In a letter to the parents' attorney on Jan. 6, Wight wrote, "Our legal advisers have pointed out that they are unaware of any court or California statute which has forbidden public schools to explore cultural phenomenon, including history, religion or creation myths."

But according to the complaint filed in federal court Tuesday, the class is not an even-handed exploration of ideas; it is a promotion of a specific religious view. The parents claim that the course, which is taught by the wife of an Assemblies of God minister, advocates Biblical creationism — the notion that the Earth is only 6,000 years old — and accords with the Genesis account of creation. As evidence, the parents said that the syllabus originally listed 24 videos to be shown to students, and claim that 23 of them were "produced or distributed by religious organizations and assume a pro-creationist, anti-evolution stance."

They point to one video is called "Chemicals to Living Cells: Fantasy or Science," which is produced by a Christian ministry called Answers in Genesis.

Moreover, said Lynn, "we don't know of any individual who plans to speak in favor of evolution."

The original syllabus listed two experts: One was a local teacher who refused to speak to the class and is one of the plaintiffs. The other was Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, who died in 2004. The parents will try to prove that the government is promoting a particular religious viewpoint, which would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

But the Discovery Institute's Casey Luskin predicted a vigorous legal battle. Luskin acknowledged that religious ideas cannot be taught in public schools as an alternative to evolution, according to a 1987 ruling by the Supreme Court. But he argued that such precedent does not mean that religious ideas — even ones that challenge evolutionary theory — are barred from the classroom.

"You can teach about religion, you can teach about the Bible, you can teach about the Koran in social science or humanities class," Luskin said. "So if Americans United for Separation of Church and State is saying this is just religion, well, the courts have seemed to settle that you can talk about religion" in classes that discuss world views and philosophy.

He said it is "unfortunate" that Philosophy of Design class appears to have a creationist tilt. Still, he said, students need to be exposed to alternative ideas about the origin of life, and in particular intelligent design, which has sparked enormous controversy in public schools.

"It's clear that this is not about keeping religion out of the classroom," he said, referring to the parents' lawsuit. "It's about keeping ideas that they don't like out of the minds of students."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.