In a second defeat in a month for proponents of teaching “intelligent design” in public schools, a rural school district in Kern County agreed Tuesday to stop a course that had included discussion of a religion-based alternative to evolution.
As part of a court settlement, Frazier Mountain High School in Lebec will terminate the course one week earlier than planned, and the El Tejon Unified School District agreed never to offer such a course in its classrooms again.
The settlement comes on the heels of a court battle in Dover, Pa., in which a U.S. district judge rejected the school board’s decision to teach intelligent design as part of a science course, ruling that it was a theological argument, and not science. The Lebec suit was the first legal challenge of teaching intelligent design in California.
Intelligent design holds that some biological aspects of life are so complex that they could not have evolved randomly, but rather, must have been produced by an unidentified intelligent cause, or designer.
The El Tejon school board had argued that its course, called “Philosophy of Design,” was not science, but philosophy, and sought to explore cultural phenomena, including history, religion and creation myths. But a group of parents objected and sued, contending that the district was violating the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.
A hearing scheduled before a federal judge in Fresno on Tuesday was canceled as a result of the settlement.
“We see this as sending a signal to school districts across the country that you can’t just change the title of a course from science to humanities and then proceed to promote religious theories as alternatives to evolution,” said Ayesha N. Khan, legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“You can teach students about historical, legal and cultural aspects, and about the controversy, but you cannot do so in a way that promotes a religious point of view,” said Khan, whose Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group represented the Frazier Mountain High parents opposing the class.
El Tejon school Supt. John W. Wight said in a written statement Tuesday that it had been “very difficult” for the school board to make its decision to halt the class. Neither the school board nor its employees “have promoted any religious belief in any academic setting,” Wight said. “The idea was to have an open discussion of the different points of views on the origin of life, a philosophical exercise in critical thinking.
“We believe that in the right setting, social and cultural issues should be discussed and studied,” he added. “They have educational value and require some academic freedom.”
Khan said that the agreement followed extensive negotiations. “There was a lot of back and forth,” the lawyer noted. “The main issue that had to be negotiated was the date that the course would end.”
The school district had been concerned about the course being cut short mid-stream, Khan said.
The course began Jan. 3 and was scheduled to run for one month. The initial description said the class would examine evolution as a theory and to explore why the concept “is not rock solid.” The class also sought to “discuss intelligent design as an alternative response to evolution.” Wight said the course -- which, according to the suit, met each day for three hours -- would be discontinued on Jan. 27.
Advocates for the teaching of intelligent design believe school officials in Lebec -- a mountain community of about 1,300 people -- had been intimidated into settling, to avoid the prospect of a costly suit.
Wight acknowledged that, as a small school system with limited financial resources, the district “cannot afford to spend the amount of economic funds to defend the Philosophy of Design class in the court system.”
“What you have here is a small school district that essentially got bullied into an overreaching settlement by Americans United,” said Casey Luskin, an attorney for the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a public policy think tank that promotes intelligent design. “They want complete censorship of intelligent design from state-run schools. It’s a problem, because intelligent design is a science. It’s not a religious point of view.”
Luskin, who traveled to Lebec on Friday to advise the school board prior to the settlement, said his group actually opposed the Philosophy of Design course, because it was “mixing up” the theories of intelligent design and young-Earth or biblical creationism -- a theory that insists there is scientific support for the biblical Book of Genesis being literally true.
But by promising to never again offer a course that promotes or endorses creationism, creation science or intelligent design, school officials had essentially “abdicated their constitutional right to present this scientific theory in schools,” Luskin said.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia said the settlement might also dissuade other schools from introducing such classes, for fear of being sued.
Bent Frederiksen, whose ninth-grade son, Christian, 14, was among the students participating in the class, said ending the course violated his son’s 1st Amendment rights because the course was being offered as an elective, and his son had a right to choose it.
He also noted that, according to his son, the course’s teacher, Sharon Lemburg -- a minister’s wife -- never tried to force her personal religious or spiritual beliefs on the students. But in an interview the day after the suit was filed, Lemburg said: “Did God guide me to do this? I would hope so.”
Frederiksen will keep his legal options open. “I am still going to investigate whether there is a basis for a cross-complaint, or a new complaint,” he said.
However, opponents argued that the course relied heavily on videos that presented religious theories as scientific ones.
Scott Irwin, pastor of Lebec Community Church, described the settlement as a detriment to “freedom of speech and the ability to be able to choose a direction of learning.”
None of the 11 parents originally opposed to the philosophy course could be reached Tuesday for comment. And according to Supt. Wight, one of the plaintiffs had been allowed to withdraw as a party.
But Khan, the Americans United lawyer, said the plaintiffs were satisfied with the outcome.
“We accomplished precisely what we set out to accomplish, which was to have the course terminated as soon as possible, and get a commitment that the school district would not offer this course in the future,” Khan said.