The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit on Tuesday in Federal District Court in Harrisburg, Pa., against the school board of Dover, Pa., saying the boad required the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolutionary theory in public schools.
Dover is the first school district in the United States that require high school biology teachers to introduce students to the alternative theory which says the development of the universe and earth was guided at each step by an intelligent agent.
Dover school board members, as well as many taxpayers in the district, want to offer their students what they say is a more balanced presentation of how the Earth and its inhabitants may have gotten here.
In October, the Dover board voted 6-3 to require its science teachers to tell students that evolution is an incomplete scientific theory, and that intelligent design -- the idea that the universe, its earth and its creatures are so complex that they must have been built by an intelligent creator -- is a viable alternative.
Steve Farrell, a Dover High School alumnus, says the requirement will help bring "God back into the school."Anyone who would fight the intelligent-design mandate is "taking a stand against God," he said.
The parents who filed the suit said school board members are not trying to broaden students' horizons as they claim, but instead are forcing their own religious beliefs on students.
"The Dover school board created the policy for religious reasons," said Tammy Kitzmiller, whose ninth-grade son is about to take the biology course.
Kitzmiller and other opponents of the Dover board said the theory of Judeo-Christian creationism could have a place in public schools, but not in science classes. Instead, it belongs in a religious history course, comparing Genesis' version of creation with those from other worldwide religions.
Initiatives to introduce intelligent design in curriculums are percolating nationally, and this case could test how far opponents of evolution can go in shaping the teaching of science, said advocates and critics of intelligent design.
"There is reason that the eyes of the nation will be on this," the assistant legal director at Americans United, Richard B. Katskee, said, "because these kind of efforts are going on in other places or are imminent there."
Recent surveys have shown that a majority of Americans favor teaching alternatives in school, and local boards have stepped up efforts to challenge the teaching of evolution. In Cobb County, Ga., the civil liberties group has sued the school district over a disclaimer about evolution inserted into textbooks. In Kansas, conservatives who favor challenging the teaching of evolution recently won a majority on the state school board, and they are generally expected to change the state science curriculum as early as the spring.
The two groups in the Pennsylvania case say teaching the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which calls for the separation of church and state.
The Dover district said in a statement on its Web site that it was reviewing the case.
A major proponent of intelligent design, the Discovery Institute in Seattle, said that the Dover policy was misguided because it was unclear and that it should be withdrawn and rewritten.
Other proponents said the theory was not based on any religion's holdings about creation but on science.
"Students will be made aware of gaps and problems in evolution," said Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, a public interest law firm in Ann Arbor, Mich., that promotes Christian values. "What's wrong with that? What gets the A.C.L.U. and others all upset is that those alternatives to evolution might include intelligent design, which might lead to God."
The 11 parents who are the plaintiffs say intelligent design lacks the research and observation that underlie evolution.
I feel that this is an effort on the part of the school board to move religious instruction into the science classroom, said Steve Stough, a plaintiff who has a daughter in the eight grade and who teaches seventh-grade life science in nearby district.