Design Trial Attracts Worldwide Media Attention

Dover school officials wanted to add intelligent design to the science curriculum.

c. 2005 Religion News Service

HARRISBURG, Pa. _ Scores of reporters, some high school students and an occasional clergyman have been observers in a courtroom that the world is watching as a window into the often bumpy intersection of religion and science.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III is hearing a lawsuit aimed at stopping the Dover Area School Board in York County from introducing intelligent design in science class as an alternative to lessons on evolution.

Intelligent-design advocates say evolution can’t explain all of life’s complexities, that there must have been a designer.

The trial is a culture-wars phenomenon, the first courtroom scrutiny of the latest challenge to evolution in American public schools. Plaintiffs presented witnesses Monday through Friday last week; the case will resume Wednesday (Oct. 5).

Reporters from Europe and across the U.S. have attended at least some of the trial, and stories about it have appeared in the Beijing-based Xinhua News Agency and The Journal of Turkish Weekly in Ankara.

Forty journalists registered for reserved seats _ including reporters from The Guardian, the BBC and New Scientist magazine in Britain.

The throng has diminished since the first day, when attorneys gave opening statements before a packed courtroom, but it still has an international flavor.

Giulio Meotti came from Rome to cover the trial for a small conservative daily, Il Foglio, and will be in Harrisburg through Friday.

His editors believe “the U.S. is the only nation in the world where the theory of evolution and the discussion of the origin of life is problematic,” Meotti said.

He finds the debate admirable, he said, even though he personally has no problem with evolution _ which polls show is true of most Europeans. His editors would like a similar debate in Italy, he said.

No cameras or tape recorders are allowed in the high-ceilinged, windowless courtroom. With its unadorned white-paneled walls and dark wood, the room has a utilitarian ambience.

The plush leather chairs in the jury box are set aside for reporters in this nonjury trial, but since there aren’t enough seats there to go around, journalists have often occupied the wooden benches used by the public.

Matthew Chapman, a New York screenwriter and author who is the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin, was among the observers last week.

So was the Rev. Jim Grove of Heritage Baptist Church in York, who helped organize a showing Thursday night at the Dover Fire Hall of “Why Evolution is Stupid.” That’s a DVD by Kent Hovind, who sometimes calls himself “Dr. Dino.” He believes Earth is less than 10,000 years old and dinosaurs co-existed with humans.

High school students _ whose intellects and spiritual lives are the focus of the debate _ have been there, too. Charles Horn, a reporter for the Parkland High School Morning News in Allentown, took in the first day and did a report for his school’s daily television news show.

Four students from Parkland’s debate team, whose topic this year is intelligent design, attended Friday’s session, as did four students from a mock trial team at West York High School.

The National Center for Science Education, created to defend the teaching of evolution, and the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that promotes intelligent design, have observers at the trial and offer daily blogs.

Robert Justin Lipkin, professor at Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Del., expects to be teaching this case some day in his constitutional law class. He has been following the trial from afar _ through newspapers and a couple of blogs.

So far, Lipkin said, what he’s feeling is “tremendous sympathy for the judge. … He is going to be asked to decide on what counts as science and what counts as religion.

“That’s an enormous question for anyone,” said Lipkin, who has a doctorate in philosophy as well as a law degree and has studied the philosophy of science. “That’s why I think this is really going to come down to a factual analysis” about why the board introduced intelligent design, Lipkin said.

Courts have ruled that the purposes of elected officials must be secular, and they can’t endorse religion.

The first week’s testimony about statements from board members and writings of leaders in the intelligent design movement suggest the purpose was religious, Lipkin said. “It seems to me it’s a real difficult case for the defense to win,” he said. “But facts are facts and there are glosses on facts.”

The trial is expected to last into November.


(Mary Warner writes about religion for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa.)

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!