The first trial involving intelligent design and its place in a public school science class centers on the Dover Area School District and its school board, but the impact of the case is expected to reach far beyond the rural, 3,700-student school district.

Scientists, theologians, attorneys and people on all sides of the intelligent design debate will watch the case unfold, as will the national media.

The group of reporters who reserved seats in the courtroom include writers from The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and National Public Radio. Court Television was turned down in its request to televise the trial.

U.S. Middle District Judge John E. Jones will preside over the non-jury trial, which begins Monday in federal court in Harrisburg.

What's the big deal? The crux of the case is twofold, said Paula Knudsen, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Attorneys with her group will try to prove not only that the school board had religious intentions in adopting a policy to mention intelligent design, but also that intelligent design has "religious underpinnings," she said.

And if the judge rules that intelligent design is based in religion, the decision will have weight in 20 other
states where intelligent design has been gaining support, such as Kansas, Ohio and Georgia.

Future cases could be changed by the legal precedent set by the outcome of Dover's trial, she said.

And with two vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court, the long-term implications of Dover's trial could depend on who is appointed, she said.

"It's definitely a timely discussion to be having, about what impact this has," Knudsen said. "It does have potential national consequences."

But the case would have less of an impact if Judge Jones rules only on whether the Dover board decision was religiously motivated, leaving questions about intelligent design for another court, she said.

That could please proponents of intelligent design, who have distanced themselves from the Dover school board.

Seattle-based Discovery Institute, the leading proponent of intelligent design, has issued a statement disassociating itself with Dover school board's "misguided" policy.

John West, associate director of the institute's Center for Science & Culture, said the case is really about free speech and academic freedom, which would suffer if ACLU proves its case.

He said the ACLU has framed the case in such a way as to create a gag order on intelligent design, and the group should examine its behavior to see the paradox in what it's trying to do.

The ACLU's role in Monday's trial is exactly opposite of the stance it took 80 years ago during the Scopes trial, when it was defending the teaching of evolution, he said.

The group is now trying to suppress the teaching of intelligent design, West said.

"The ACLU has finally found an idea that is too dangerous to permit discussion," he said.

He said the Discovery Institute would try to fight a verdict that rules intelligent design out of classrooms, he said.

"The ACLU wants it (the verdict) so they can apply it elsewhere," he said. "If he (Judge Jones) gives ACLU the ruling that they want, we would be very concerned."

He said intelligent design is not an effort to introduce religion in schools, despite the "Darwinian paranoia" that suggests intelligent design is kin to creationism.

One for the books: Knudsen said the case already has a place in history.

Her office has been receiving calls from people who are referring to Kitzmiller, et al v. Dover School District, et al in law school classes.

"It's the first time ID has ever been in a curriculum, so whatever happens will be of interest," she said. "It's a debate ... about religion's place in society and that more than anything I think gets people fired up."

Even President George W. Bush has weighed in on the issue, telling a group of Texas reporters Aug. 1 that he thought intelligent design should be taught with evolution in the nation's schools.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa, has said he is a proponent of intelligent design.

But much of the scientific community shares Knudsen's view of intelligent design, that it is another step in a creationism movement that started even before the famous 1920s case when science teacher John Scopes was tried for teaching evolution.

Representatives of national science groups said a win for the school board in this case would be a detriment to science.

"It will definitely send the wrong message," said Cindy Workosky, spokeswoman for the National Science Teachers Association.

She said other school districts might try to put an intelligent design policy in place if Dover is successful.

Teaching intelligent design in science class would blur the line between science and religion, said Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"It will certainly diminish science education," he said. "What we're concerned about is young people won't be able to tell the difference between science and non-science."

Knudsen said the case hinges on proving that the board had religious motives for putting the policy in place.

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