DOVER, Pa. — A battle over a policy requiring that ninth-graders in this rural community learn about "intelligent design" in biology class is being fought on two fronts — one political, one legal.
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In a federal courtroom in Harrisburg, 20 miles away, a judge is hearing arguments in the sixth week of a landmark trial over whether the concept can be introduced in public school. The non-jury trial is expected to conclude Nov. 4; it is unclear when the judge will issue a decision.
At the polls in Dover, voters will render their decision Nov. 8 on whether to retain eight of the nine Dover Area School Board members — all Republicans — or replace them with a Democratic slate whose platform calls for removing intelligent design from the curriculum.
Republican voters outnumber Democrats in the district nearly 8-5. But party affiliation may not matter in the election: While the challengers are running on the Democratic ticket, half of them are actually registered Republicans, according to a spokesman.
Intelligent design holds that the universe is so complex that it must have been created by some kind of higher force.
The school board voted a year ago to require students to hear a statement about intelligent design before learning about evolution. The statement says Charles Darwin's theory is "not a fact" and has inexplicable "gaps."
Eight families sued to have intelligent design removed, contending that it is biblical creationism in disguise and therefore violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
Around town, one billboard erected by the current school board exhorts voters to "support academic freedom." The challengers — supported by a group called Dover CARES, for Dover Citizens Actively Reviewing Educational Strategies — tout themselves as "the right choice for a new school board."
A similar dispute is unfolding in Kansas, where the state Board of Education is considering adopting language — sought by advocates of intelligent design — that suggests there are weaknesses in the theory of evolution. The board is set to vote Nov. 8.
One of the Pennsylvania plaintiffs, Bryan Rehm, is also running for the school board. "A lot of people in the community are fed up with intelligent design either way. They'd like for it to go away," he said.
Vincent Farrell, a retired Agway store manager, said he is leaning heavily toward keeping the incumbents and sees nothing wrong with making students aware of intelligent design.
"I think that to sue the Dover school board over this is overkill," said Farrell, 69. "There are a lot of closed minds, from what I've seen."
Saundra Roldan, a preschool teacher at the YMCA, is planning to vote for the slate of challengers. Even if the courts side with the school board, "we as voters and taxpayers should say, 'You put us into this mess and we're not happy about it and we want you out of here.'"
"It should not have come to that point," Roldan said as she took a break from reading her Bible.
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