In a crucial test case, education officials in rural Pennsylvania have defended their decision to require students to learn about an alternative theory to evolution to explain the origin of life.
Lawyers for the Dover area school board argued yesterday that the decision to teach intelligent design - a theory condemned by a majority of scientists as little more than "creationism-lite" - was not an attempt to force a religious agenda but a desire for pupils to keep an open mind.
"This case is about free inquiry in education, not about a religious agenda," argued Patrick Gillen of the Thomas More Law Centre, a non-profit Christian law firm which is representing the board.
The hearing is of huge significance. The Dover school board was the first in the country to make such a ruling but many other boards are watching the outcome of this case.
Eighty 80 years after the Scopes monkey trial in Tennessee - when a teacher, John Scopes, was convicted for teaching evolution - polls show that at least 45 per cent of Americans believe God made man in his current form. Only 26 per cent believe in the central tenet of evolution, that all life descended from a single ancestor, and 65 per cent believe schools should teach creationism as well as evolution.
President George Bush further fuelled the debate when he said last month that he believed that "both sides ought to be properly taught ... so people can understand what the debate is about".
The dispute in Dover, 60 miles north of Baltimore, was triggered when its nine-member school board voted last year to require biology students to listen to a short, prepared speech on intelligent design and to make available copies of a controversial book, Of Pandas and People, which criticises Darwin's theory of evolution.
A group of parents who believed religion should not be a part of such lessons sued the school board, accusing it of breaching the constitutional separation of church and state.
Tammy Kitzmiller, the lead plaintiff, has two daughters. She said she had received letters of support from teachers in other states. "What I saw the school board doing was wrong" she said. "I don't feel that intelligent design is a science. It's not accepted in the science community."
Eric Rothschild, for the parents, told the court: "Intelligent design isn't science. It's old theology. It's a clever tactical repackaging of creationism."
Proponents of intelligent design claim that some aspects of cell biology are essentially too complicated for life to have evolved without the input of an intelligent "creator".
The theory has been rejected by an overwhelming majority of scientists. Many of those are reluctant to discuss the topic in order to prevent their opponents claiming that there is a genuine debate. But Glenn Branch, vice-president of the National Centre for Science Education, which backs Darwinism, told The Independent: "There is nothing wrong with the idea of a creator but teaching it [as a part of science] leads to the detriment of both religion and science. There is a blurring of the two and it leads to the misrepresentation of science."
A leading scientist called by the parents' lawyer as a witness dismissed intelligent design. Professor Kenneth Miller of Brown University said elements of the theory of evolution, such as where gender comes from, were subject to debate, but he added: "There is no controversy within science over the core proposition of evolutionary theory ... Intelligent design is not a testable theory in any sense and as such it is not accepted by the scientific community."
The move to force students to hear about intelligent design was led by William Buckingham, a former member of the school board. At one public meeting he asked: "Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross. Can't someone take a stand for him?"Reuse content