Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District

Tom Shipka

Next month marks the second anniversary of the landmark ruling by Judge John E. Jones III in the U. S. District Court in Harrisburg in the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. (1) Tammy Kitzmiller was one of eleven parents of students in the public schools of Dover, a township about twenty miles south of Harrisburg, who sued the school district after the Board of Education adopted a policy requiring the reading of a statement in ninth-grade biology classes which cast doubt on the scientific adequacy of evolution, said that "Intelligent Design" is a plausible alternative explanation, and referred students to an intelligent-design textbook entitled Of Pandas and People. (2) Intelligent Design, or ID, holds that "living organisms are so complex that they must have been created by some kind of a higher force." (3) In their lawsuit, the first challenge to ID in the federal courts, the plaintiffs asked the Court to stop the reading of the pro-ID statement because ID is a religious doctrine, not a scientific theory.
In his 139-page ruling on December 20, 2005, Judge Jones found for the plaintiffs. He said that ID is not science but a thinly veiled form of creationism and that it is unconstitutional to teach it in a public school. (4)
Judge Jones learned a lot during the trial about science and the relation of science to religion, thanks to the testimony of expert witnesses for the plaintiffs, including Kenneth R. Miller, a cell biologist from Brown University, and John F. Haught, a theologian from Georgetown University, both of whom are practicing Roman Catholics. They pointed out that scientists seek natural causes of natural events, a strategy called methodological naturalism, and that ID violates this because it posits non-natural or supernatural causes. For this reason, Dr. Miller said, ID is a "science stopper."
We can illustrate this point with an example. Suppose you visit your doctor to seek relief of pain in your right arm, your doctor examines you and reviews the results of an MRI, and then reports that a herniated disk is the cause, a problem correctible with surgery. Here your doctor followed methodological naturalism. But suppose that instead of doing this, your doctor tells you that your pain has no cause within your body but is due to an evil spirit. By hypothesizing a non-natural or supernatural explanation of a natural condition, your doctor, like the advocates of ID, abandons science.
Judge Jones took no stance on whether the cosmos has an intelligent cause, declaring, properly, that such matters are outside the province of science. His ruling was informed and brave. And who appointed this Republican church-goer to the federal bench? None other than ID enthusiast President George W. Bush in 2002!
You can learn more about this famous case on NOVA on your local PBS station at 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday, November 13, when a two-hour film entitled "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial" will be aired.

  1. Case No. 04cv2688.
  2. The vote was 6-3. The three Board members who opposed the ID policy resigned in protest. At the next election, all of the Board members who voted for the ID policy and sought reelection were defeated by candidates opposed to the policy.
  3., December 20, 2005.
  4. Judge Jones also lambasted the members of the pro-ID faction of the Dover Board of Education who, he charged, lied under oath "time and again" to camouflage the religious motives behind the ID policy. See page 132 of the ruling. Judge Jones awarded attorneys' fees to the plaintiffs, costing the school district over $1 million. The newly constituted Board declined to appeal Judge Jones's ruling.

© 2007 Tom Shipka