As a matter of policy, U.S. District Judge John Jones’ ruling last week that intelligent design cannot be taught in science classes is the prudent one. The case warranted a constitutional review, particularly since the court found the motives behind the Dover Area School District’s decision to incorporate intelligent design into the biology curriculum to be religious rather than scientific. Several members of the school board were vocal in their religious motivations, while none had a solid grasp of the basics of intelligent design. As Judge Jones said in his ruling, “We find that the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to a pretext for the Board’s real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom, in violation of the Establishment Clause.”
Even if the board members’ motives were purely scientific, intelligent design has a long way to go before it can compete with the 150 years of scholarship buttressing Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Although Darwinian evolution isn’t without its weaknesses, public schools cannot be asked to weigh all scholastic controversies fairly. Their purpose is to give students a fundamental grounding in the accepted or best explanation of a given field of study, not fight the battles being waged by the experts.
Had Judge Jones limited himself to these conditions, we would find nothing wrong with his decision. Most proponents of intelligent design don’t even advocate that the theory be taught in high-school biology classes. But the judge didn’t do that. Instead, he extended the limits of his court power to include deciding what is and what is not scientific. “The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory,” he wrote. The status of intelligent design is the source for much of the current controversy; but it was not the question before the court, nor would any right-minded judge consider his qualifications adequate to decide such a question.
In fact, Judge Jones has a rather inflated view of his power. “[T]he Court is confident that no other tribunal in the United States is in a better position than are we to traipse into this controversial area,” he wrote. Apparently, that includes the Supreme Court. “We will offer our conclusion on whether ID is science not just because it is essential to our holding that an Establishment Clause violation has occurred in this case, but also in the hope that it may prevent the obvious waste of judicial and other resources which would be occasioned by a subsequent trial involving the precise question which is before us.”
This is dangerous judicial overreach. Intelligent design will live or die on the strength of its evidence. But when judges claim the power to decide the merits of scientific theories, then they are no better than Galileo’s persecutors.
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