Published online 21 December 2005 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news051219-8


Evolution wins Pennsylvania trial

Judge declares intelligent design is creationism in disguise.

Keeping religion out of science class: a judge has ruled that high schools should not teach intelligent design.Keeping religion out of science class: a judge has ruled that high schools should not teach intelligent design.© Punchstock

A federal judge has ruled that teaching intelligent design in US public high schools is unconstitutional.

On 20 December, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Judge John Jones issued a scathing opinion in which he described a local school board's efforts to promote intelligent design as "breathtaking inanity".

Last year, the school board of the nearby town of Dover voted to have a statement read in ninth-grade biology classes, mentioning gaps in the theory of evolution and recommending a textbook, Of Pandas and People, that teaches intelligent design.

Intelligent design is the belief that today's organisms are not the product of natural selection but of some intelligent designer. Eleven parents sued the school board, claiming that the board's policy violated the first amendment to the US constitution, which separates church and state.

“The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.”

Judge John Jones

Rather than just throwing out the policy because of the religious motivations of the school board members who instituted it, Jones went on to state that intelligent design was clearly religious and indubitably not science.

"We conclude that the religious nature of intelligent design would be readily apparent to an objective observer, adult or child," he writes.

Creationism retold

In his 139-page opinion, Jones reviews the history of intelligent design. He declares: "The overwhelming evidence at trial established that intelligent design is a religious view, a mere re-labelling of creationism, and not a scientific theory."

The decision will not have legal precedence for similar cases in other districts, but because of the thoroughness of the opinion, it may have what lawyers term "persuasive authority". The ruling bans the reading of the Dover statement, which was due to go ahead next month at the beginning of the ninth-grade evolution unit.

The school board that wrote the policy has since been voted out, and their replacements are unlikely to appeal.

Praise be

Eric Rothschild, a lawyer from Pepper Hamilton LLP in Philadelphia who helped represent the suing parents, called the decision "a complete victory".

Biologists who testified in the case were even more ecstatic. "I think it is everything we could have hoped for," says Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. "The opinion is splendid. What is very clear is that the judge worked hard, diligently followed the scientific arguments, and understood them thoroughly."

"The whole place here is saying that this is beyond our wildest dreams," says Kevin Padian, a palaeontologist and trial witness from the University of California, Berkeley, speaking from Harrisburg. "This means that as science, intelligent design is effectively dead."

Hard to squelch


Not everyone is ready to read intelligent design's obituary. Casey Luskin, program officer in public policy and legal affairs at the Discovery Institute, an intelligent design think-tank in Seattle, Washington, says that the judge mischaracterized the theory.

"The judge simply ignored the evidence that intelligent design does not rely on a supernatural creator," says Luskin. He predicts that the ruling will pique people's interest in intelligent design: "When you tell students that they can't think about something, they are going to want to think about it."

Nick Matzke of the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organization in California that guards the teaching of evolution in public schools, says that intelligent design, under any name, is hard to squelch. "The history of creationism is that it doesn't go extinct... it evolves," he says. "We fully expect that they will come up with a new strategy."