Why It Mattered in Court That Intelligent Design Isn’t Science

Saturday, February 13, 2016: 1:30 PM-4:30 PM
Marshall Ballroom West (Marriott Wardman Park)
Richard Katskee, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Washington, DC
The sad fact is that students in the public schools have no legal right to demand high-quality science instruction. Indeed, federal law doesn’t prohibit the public schools from teaching lousy science, or even from cutting science out of the curriculum altogether—notwithstanding how harmful that would be to our children, our nation, and our planet. So if a local school board hires a biology or chemistry or physics teacher who doesn’t actually know anything about science, or if a teacher decides to devote instructional time to basketball or poetry or alchemy and call it science, there’s little as a legal matter that parents can do to remedy the situation. 

The U.S. Constitution does, however, forbid the teaching of religious beliefs in the public schools. That is because, if a public school seeks to indoctrinate or promote a set of religious views, it interferes with the fundamental right of parents to make the choices about what religious instruction, if any, their children will receive. The essential freedom from governmental intrusion into matters of faith is what allows people with different belief systems to live together in relative harmony in our diverse society. 

As some of my fellow panelists will explain, the trial in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District did much to educate people all across the country about good and bad science. But that was not, and could not be, the legal issue in the case. Instead, what mattered was whether intelligent design, though donning some of the trappings of science, is really a religious view—namely, the belief that God created the world and the organisms in it in roughly their current form. Because the intelligent-design movement’s pretensions to science don’t change the fundamental nature of intelligent design as a theological view, it has no place in the public-school curriculum.

I will explain the legal and social history leading up to the Dover trial, to show both how intelligent-design creationism is the continuation of a long line of fundamentalist religious opposition to science, and why that is what mattered for purposes of the lawsuit.