Tuesday’s school board election in Dover, Pennsylvania, a quiet rural community near the Maryland border where churches seem to outnumber streetlights, was a fitting climax to a year of bitter division there. In a contest with national implications, Dover voters tossed an entire slate of Intelligent Design supporters, replacing them with backers of evolution.
The eight incumbents, calling themselves “Dover First,” were defendants in a lawsuit over a board decision last year to include a statement on Intelligent Design-a theory of creation favored by Christians-in all classes dealing with evolution.
Their eight challengers–running under the name “Dover CARES,” short for Citizens Actively Reviewing Educational Strategies-will now be free to ditch that policy.
At times, the campaign grew downright nasty. A mailing sent out to many Dover residents accused the CARES challengers of partnering with the ACLU-which, the flyer said, defends the North American Man/Boy Love Association’s “right to put out information on how adults can lure young children into having sex with them.”
What was really at issue, however, was not man/boy sex, but a good old-fashioned debate over God and monkeys.
Dover, which voted last year for George Bush by a margin of two to one, has the dubious distinction of being the first school district in the nation to work the theistic-friendly theory of Intelligent Design into classrooms-specifically those for ninth-grade biology.
Last October, the board voted six to three to open classes concerning evolution with a one-minute statement that points out “gaps” in Darwin’s theory. The statement then suggests that students consider Intelligent Design, which posits that humans are too complex to have evolved from chimps. The theory is widely rejected by scientists, but its proponents find proof, or at least cause for further inquiry, in the similarities between machines and the machine-like structures in human organisms. Just as your father’s Oldsmobile had a designer, they say, so did you. Supporters are quick to deny any religious overtones, saying who or what the designer is cannot be known through science alone.
The board’s decision put Dover and its school system into the media spotlight, with administrators and board members cast as heroes or sinners, depending on your view of evolution, and with the parents and teachers who oppose them as either martyrs for science or anti-Christian reactionaries.
“It has turned neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend,” said Jeff Brown, a Sunday school teacher and former school board member who resigned in protest of the vote (as did his wife, another of the board’s three dissenter). “I have lost friends over this.”
“It is embarrassing,” said Tammy Kitzmiller, whose 14-year-old daughter was in the biology class last year in which the statement was read. “I know teachers who are afraid to say they teach at Dover because of the embarrassment.”
With the help of the ACLU, Kitzmiller and 10 other parents sued the school board for teaching a religious doctrine. The board found representation with the Thomas More Law Center, which calls itself the “sword and shield for people of faith.”
The trial, in federal court, wrapped on Friday. The judge is expected to make a decision by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the people of Dover finally had a chance to be heard at the polls.
And as much as the candidates said the election was about more than just God and chimpanzees, for many Dover residents that is indeed exactly what it came down to.
Ray Mummert sided with God and the board members. “I think they’re making a courageous statement,” said Mummert, a pastor at a nearby church and the father of 14-year-old in the Dover biology class. Along with his wife and two other couples, he tried unsuccessfully to join the lawsuit as co-defendants. “They stood up against the ACLU and said we will not be intimidated. And I think they speak for a significant portion of this community.”
Apparently they didn’t speak for a large enough portion. All of the current board members were ousted, replaced by the Dover CARES candidates, a sobering splash of cold water perhaps to the dozens of other school districts considering following in Dover’s path. Measures to do just that are pending in 20 legislatures around the nation, and President Bush has come out in favor of teaching it. And in Kansas this week, the State Board of Education approved changes to the science curriculum that would cast doubt on the theory of evolution.
One of the losing incumbents in Dover, David Napierskie told a local newspaper a week before the vote, “ I believe that Nov. 8 will decide how the [Dover community feels] about” the Intelligent Design court case.
It seems as though they just sent a pretty strong message.