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Alumni take on law and science of intelligent design


Judge John E. Jones III '80 and Professor Frank Ravitch '91.
During the six-week trial of Kitzmiller v. Dover School District, the fate of scientific education in America hung in the balance in the courtroom of Judge John Jones III ’80. It was the first case testing whether intelligent design could legally be taught as part of a science class in public school.

Today Judge Jones visited Penn State Law to reflect on the case and intelligent design with fellow alumnus Frank Ravitch ’91, a scholar of law, religion, and philosophy.
 
“This case has become part of the fabric of my life and my being,” said Judge Jones, who has done speaking engagements all over the United States since deciding the case in 2005.
 
In Kitzmiller v. Dover School District, Judge Jones held that teaching intelligent design in public school biology class violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution and Article 1, section 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The case has made Judge Jones something of a celebrity; in 2007 he was the subject of a two-hour special episode of NOVA, and Bruce Springsteen alluded to the trial during one of his concerts in New Jersey.
 
Judge Jones explained that he walked into the case with no preconceived notions about intelligent design and that he “gave a level playing field” to both parties. Judge Jones was particularly troubled by the waste of time and resources spent on the case, as it was very clear from depositions and other evidence that the school board had a religious motivation for the policy at the outset and attempted, after the fact, to disguise this.
 
“It was apparent from the outset of the case that members of the school board were in a great deal of difficulty,” Judge Jones said.

Kitzmiller was the first court test of intelligent design. When faced with the choice of writing a narrow opinion or a more expansive one, Judge Jones chose to be expansive and decide whether intelligent design is science. He held:
The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board's ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.
He explained that he is not an “activist” judge. Rather, judges decide what good science is all the time when they decide Daubert challenges, he explained. “Federal judges are evidentiary gatekeepers.”
 
Professor Frank Ravitch shared his perspective on law, philosophy, and religion. He is a Professor of Law and the Walter H. Stowers Chair in Law and Religion at Michigan State University College of Law and recently authored Marketing Intelligent Design: The Law and the Creationist Agenda. When Professor Ravitch began writing the book, he viewed intelligent design as a Rubik’s Cube that might have a logical solution. He wanted to know whether there was any way to teach intelligent design in science class that would be constitutional. So he immersed himself in articles, books, and thinkers on intelligent design and eventually concluded that “the Rubik’s Cube could not be solved.”

He boiled down the legal aspect this way: “Is intelligent design science? Is it religion? If it’s religion you have an Establishment Clause problem.” Professor Ravitch explained that the only way around this problem is for intelligent design to be good science. He said that intelligent design “is all marketing. None of this has anything to do with science. It’s clearly religion…a supernatural force at work cannot be studied by science.”
 
Both panelists were careful to point out that they were not demeaning religion or religious people, and both panelists mentioned that they happen to be religious in their personal lives. Professor Ravitch said that he does not see a conflict between evolution and belief in a creator and that many major world religions have reconciled theistic origin with evolutionary biology, including Buddhism, Hinduism, two branches of Sunni Islam, and many Christian denominations.

“As a former middle school teacher and as a religious person, I was really interested in this event,” said second-year student David Brown, who taught social studies in South Carolina before attending Penn State Law. “The speakers did a great job of merging law, science, and religion, which is something you don’t see every day.” 
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