The Dover Area School District and its board will likely walk into a First Amendment court battle next week without the backing of the nation's largest supporter of intelligent design.

The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit that describes itself as a "nonpartisan policy and research organization," recently issued a policy position against Dover in its upcoming court case.

John West, associate director of Discovery's Center for Science & Culture, calls the Dover policy "misguided" and "likely to be politically divisive and hinder a fair and open discussion of the merits of intelligent design."

Eleven parents filed a federal suit last December, about two months after the school board voted to include a statement about intelligent design in its ninth-grade biology classes.

Intelligent design says living things are so complicated they had to have been created by a higher being, that life is too complex to have developed through evolution as described by biologist Charles Darwin.

The parents, along with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union, said the board had religious motives for putting the policy in place.

The non-jury trial is expected to start in Harrisburg Sept. 26.

No surprise: The school board's attorney, Richard Thompson, said he isn't surprised the Discovery Institute has distanced itself from the school board's stance.


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"I think it's a tactical decision they make on their own," said Thompson, top at-
torney with Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, a law firm that specializes in cases related to the religious freedom of Christians.

Though the Discovery Institute promotes the teaching of intelligent design, it has been critical of school boards that have implemented intelligent design policies, Thompson said.

Discovery Institute's Web site offers school board members a link to a video titled "How to Teach the Controversy Legally," referring to the organization's opinion that there is a controversy over the validity of the theory of evolution.

The video doesn't specifically mention teaching intelligent design.

But Discovery Institute is the leading organization touting intelligent design research and supporting the scientists and scholars who want to investigate it.

Dover is the only school district that Discovery has publicly spoken out against. West said that's because they mandated the policy. Discovery Institute supports teaching intelligent design, but not requiring it through a school board policy.

He said there are few proponents of intelligent design who support the stand Dover's board has taken because the district has required the reading of a statement that mentions intelligent design and directs students to an intelligent design textbook.

"They really did it on their own and that's unfortunate," West said.

The "bad policy" has given the ACLU a reason to try to "put a gag order" on intelligent design in its entirety, he said.

Discovery also spoke out against Pennsylvania legislators who wanted to give school boards the option of mandating the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution.

Avoiding politics: Teaching intelligent design is not unconstitutional, but the institute doesn't support the Dover school board's stand because it doesn't want intelligent design to become a political issue, said Casey Luskin, program officer in the Public Policy and Legal Affairs department at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture.

He said the Discovery Institute is "not trying to hinder their case in court," but the organization wants intelligent design to be debated by the scientific community, not school boards.

Lawyer: Won't hinder case: Thompson said the Discovery Institute's noninvolvement in the trial won't hinder Dover's case because "the judge is going to look at the policy ... not who is in favor of it on the outside."

But the institute has been a hindrance to the school district's attempts to find "scientific" witnesses to testify about intelligent design, Thompson said.

Though Discovery representatives said they have never been in support of Dover's policy, Thompson said the organization's unwillingness to get involved in the trial became evident after it insisted that some of its fellows -- who were lined up to testify -- have their own legal representation, instead of the Thomas More Center, which bills itself as "The Sword and Shield for People of Faith."

Some of the Discovery Institute's intelligent design supporters backed out of testifying, even after Thompson told them they could have their own legal representation if they wanted, Thompson said.

"It was very disappointing" that the institute would prevent its members from testifying, Thompson said.

But he still found some willing Discovery fellows to testify that intelligent design is not a religious movement: Michael Behe from Lehigh University and Scott Minnich from the University of Idaho.

West said Discovery fellow Charles Thaxton is also slated to testify.

Reach Christina Kauffman at 505-5434 or ckauffman@yorkdispatch.com.