Intelligent design: Kids kept out of trial

CHRISTINA KAUFFMAN
YorkDispatch

The two opposing sides of Dover's intelligent design debate have found at least one thing on which they can agree -- keeping the kids out of the argument.

Parents suing the district and school district officials agreed not to call on students to testify in the case, though the students are most directly affected by the reading of a statement saying there are "gaps" in the theory of evolution and offering intelligent design as an alternative.

"We've shielded students from the litigation because they're minors," said Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. "We don't need to have them testify."

He said nothing would be lost from the case in the absence of student testimony because their parents can testify for them.

"If you look at most of the big church-state cases involving schools, they are brought on by parents on behalf of their children," Walczak said.

School thoughts: Superintendent Richard Nilsen said he's glad the students are not involved because "their business is to be in school."

"I'm pleased there has been minimal if no interruption in the classroom."

He said he's confident U.S. Middle District Judge John E. Jones will have the perspective to see how the policy could affect students without having to hear testimony.

Board member Alan Bonsell said students have been affected by the lawsuit.

"They said, 'You know, all Dover gets by the local press is bad press,'" he said.

He said students' achievements on standardized tests, singing groups, sports are overlooked, as are the accomplishments of teachers and the board.

"Some of our teachers were nominated the teacher of the year award for the whole state," he said. "And we're the only school district in the county that didn't have a tax increase this year. ... I think we're doing a pretty job, myself."

While teachers and scientists have testified that mentioning intelligent design would be confusing to students and give them the wrong ideas about the nature of science, Bonsell said he believes "a vast majority of the kids don't have a problem with anything we are doing."

Objective look: The school district's attorney, Richard Thompson, said that under the criteria used to judge First Amendment cases, it doesn't matter if all of the students are in favor of the policy.

Under the law, the judge is to decide the case through the eyes of a "hypothetical objective observer," not someone subjective like a student, Thompson said.

"In other words, if you lined up 90 students and 75 said they don't perceive any religious promotion in the context, the courts say that wouldn't be relevant," Thompson said.

Students whose parents filed the lawsuit might think intelligent design is religious, while others might think it isn't, he said.

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