Last year I sent out a survey question to hundreds of prominent writers and thinkers. I asked them all the same question: “What(if anything) should public schools teach children about religion?” I was curious about what distinguished Americans thought about this topic. And, much to my surprise, well over a hundred of them responded, including forty national, international, and New York Times bestselling authors. Wow!
One person I was especially interested in hearing from was the Honorable Judge John E. Jones III. Judge Jones caught my attention back in 2005 when he presided over the now famous Klitzmiller v. Dover case. The case dealt with “religion in schools” and the ongoing war between religion, public education, and evolutionary science. The trial gained international attention. In a kind of reverse way, it was a modern day Scopes Monkey Trial. In 2007, NOVA aired its award-winning documentary about the trial, Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial. It is a documentary that I have used in my religion class, and my students are fascinated with it.
If you are not familiar with the case, here is a summary:
Eleven parents of students in Dover, Pennsylvania, sued the Dover Area School District over the school board requirement that a statement presenting intelligent design (aka biblical creationism) as “an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.” This statement was to be read aloud in ninth-grade science classes when evolution was taught. The plaintiffs were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) and Pepper Hamilton LLP. The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) acted as consultants for the plaintiffs. The defendants were represented by the Thomas More Law Center (TMLC).
The suit was brought in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. Since it sought an equitable remedy, by the Seventh Amendment, right to a jury trial did not apply. It was tried in a bench trial from September 26, 2005 to November 4, 2005, before Judge John E. Jones III, a conservative Republican appointed in 2002 by George W. Bush. On December 20, 2005, Jones issued his 139-page findings and decision ruling that the Dover mandate requiring the statement to be read in class was unconstitutional. The ruling concluded that intelligent design is not science, and permanently barred the board from “maintaining the Intelligent Design Policy in any school within the Dover Area School District, from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring teachers to refer to a religious alternative theory known as Intelligent Design.” And, it is worth noting, all eight of the Dover school board members who were up for re-election on November 8, 2005 were defeated by a set of challengers who opposed the teaching of intelligent design in a science class (The ninth member was not up for re-election).
The trial is a great contemporary example of how religion, science, politics, and law can collide. Although religion may have lost this battle, the war goes on, and I want my students to understand this. And, needless to say, I was really hoping Judge Jones would respond to my survey question – I really wanted to hear his opinion! His office did respond, but, darn it, it was not what I hoped for. The response is below.
Although I was disappointed with the reply, I understood it…it made total sense to me. And, in a very small way, the Judge and I are in the same situation – we both must maintain a relentless commitment to objectivity and show no personal bias, he in his rulings, and me in my teachings.