Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Dover scorecard

Today's coverage in the papers of record don't really indicate that anything of consequence happened in Dover today. The representatives of the parents argued that ID is creationism (it is) and that this case is no different from McLean or Aguillard; the IDolators argued that it isn't, or that it is but evolution is just a different sort of religion, or that this is all about free speech.

Some background is relevant here. The actions in Dover are ably recounted in the sources above and at the Pandas Thumb, and I'll leave it to them.

The question at hand for me is: what's at stake in Dover?

McLean and Aguillard held that teaching creationism, on its own or "balanced" with evolution, violates the constitutional barriers on government entanglement and endorsement of religion, and I doubt that the Supreme Court would care to revisit those decisions.

The 9th Circuit (which doesn't have jurisdiction over Pennsylvania) has ruled that requiring a teacher to present evolution was not a violation of the teacher's first amendment rights, and that forbidding a teacher from discussing his religious views with students (views which denied evolution of life from a single common ancestor) was not a violation of the first amendment. That isn't binding precedent, but a contrary ruling in Katzmiller (the Dover case) would set up a circuit split and a guaranteed Supreme Court ruling.

Similarly, a district court in Texas (!) found that no First Amendment issue existed for students taking a class presenting evolution. That's not binding precedent either, the Dover Court can choose to make entirely opposite decisions, but that guarantees appeals all over.

A district court in Georgia (not binding precedent) recently found that warning stickers (similar to the statement required by the Dover board) were a violation of the establishment clause. In part, singling out evolution for special warnings was the problem cited in the case, which is currently in appeals in the 11th Circuit, setting up the possibility of a Circuit split.

So, a science class cannot teach creationism (typically with specific reference to the Biblical Genesis) and cannot reject evolution explicitly. None of that is at risk in Dover.

The IDolators hope to distinguish IDC from other forms of creationism, and in doing so, to establish that one can teach IDC on its own or in combination with evolution. Their claims seem to mimic those of the plaintiffs in Texas and the defendants in Georgia, which bodes ill for them. In my opinion, the ties between IDC and traditional creationism are well established. There's evidence that the authors of the ID textbook being used in Dover originally wrote the book around "creationism" and then did a find-and-replace to produce a book written around "intelligent design." One news story indicates that evidence was presented that the same process happened in the school board, but I'm not sure that wasn't just a slight misunderstanding by the reporter.

To prevail, the board will first have to sever those ties. To do this, they seem to place great weight on the fact that IDC doesn't specifically name any particular God. I dealt with that nonsense yesterday.

The parents defending science are hoping to establish that IDC is just a different form of creationism, a salami strategy for religion in the schools. If IDC as it currently exists is lumped with the rest of creationism, everything goes back to normal until creationism evolves further.

I'm divided in my desires. On one hand, I want this nonsense done with, and if the courts will do the job, the lazy man in me says fine. The scientist in me says that science class should only have science in them, and IDC isn't science.

On the other hand, I think that legal rulings which simply cut off a controversial social argument are often counterproductive. It weakens the winning side, since there's nothing to push for any more, and it strengthens the loser, since they have a permanent issue to run on. Think of Roe v. Wade, Epperson v. Arkansas or Engel v. Vitale. Have those rulings dulled the intensity of the debate over abortion, creationism or school prayer? I doubt it. They have created perpetual issues for partisans to campaign on, only to be powerless to effect any change, leaving them the issue to campaign on in perpetuity.

My ideal ruling in this case would be narrow. It would cite the religious statements made by school board members and IDolators in Dover and throughout that movement, and leave the issue there. The content of a science curriculum ought to be established in a dialog between the parents in the community and the scientific community, but the courts don't deal in ought. The court should block the warnings as unjustifiably attacking one scientific theory over others, block the implementation of the IDC curriculum and the introduction of the IDC textbook, but not ban them. Just to reiterate existing case law:

[T]he essential characteristics of science are:
  1. It is guided by natural law;
  2. It has to be explanatory by reference to nature law;
  3. It is testable against the empirical world;
  4. Its conclusions are tentative, i.e. are not necessarily the final word; and
  5. Its is falsifiable.
The contents of science class must meet those standards. If evidence is presented in Board meetings that a secular purpose is served by presenting a theory that meets those criteria, fire away. IDC doesn't do that, but the forum for that discussion is the community, not a court room.

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