HARRISBURG, Pa. — The superintendent of a school district that is defending its decision to mention "intelligent design" in biology classes testified Friday that he did not equate the concept with creationism.
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"I did not see intelligent design as creationism. I saw them totally separate," Dover Area Superintendent Richard Nilsen said. "Creationism references Genesis. ... Intelligent design does not reference a biblical context at all."
The Dover Area School Board approved the curriculum change a year ago, requiring students to hear a statement about intelligent design before ninth-grade biology lessons on evolution. The statement says Charles Darwin's theory is "not a fact," has inexplicable "gaps," and refers students to a textbook, "Of Pandas and People," for more information.
Nilsen testified as a witness for the defense during the fourth week of a landmark federal trial that could determine whether intelligent design can be brought up in public school biology classes.
Eight families are suing to have intelligent design removed from the curriculum, because they believe the policy essentially promotes the Bible's view of creation, and therefore violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
Intelligent design supporters argue that life on Earth was the product of an unidentified intelligent force, and that natural selection cannot fully explain the origin of life or the emergence of highly complex life forms.
Nilsen said Friday he didn't think the district's approach to intelligent design would get as involved as it did. He originally envisioned teachers making only passing references to the concept in biology class.
"No one had ever said we would ignore or modify the state standards on evolution," he said.
But when teachers started asking how to implement it, the district developed the statement to be read in class.
Under cross-examination, plaintiffs' attorney Eric Rothschild asked Nilsen about a reference "Of Pandas and People" made to a "master intellect" as the origin of life on Earth. He said that, in a pretrial deposition, Nilsen had said he thought that "could only mean God or aliens."
"Is that your idea of good pedagogy?" Rothschild asked.
Nilsen replied, "Good pedagogy is to give them (students) the understanding that people believe that is true and to give them other options."
Assistant superintendent Michael Baksa, who oversees the district's curriculum, testified Friday that creationism was never discussed when school board member Bill Buckingham met with Baksa in June 2004 to air his concerns about the biology textbook's treatment of evolution.
"I understood his concerns would be that the theory is treated like a fact, a reality," Baksa said. "It's mentioned so many times in the book that it biases students to accept it as a fact."
Dick M. Carpenter II, an education professor at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, also had been scheduled to testify Friday as an expert witness for the defense, but wasn't called because his testimony wasn't needed, said Patrick Gillen, an attorney representing the school board.
The trial began Sept. 26 and could last through early November. It was scheduled to resume Monday with additional testimony from Baksa and another defense expert witness, sociology professor Steven Fuller of the University of Warwick, England.
The plaintiffs are represented by a team put together by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The school district is being represented by the Thomas More Law Center, a public-interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, Mich., that says its mission is to defend the religious freedom of Christians.
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