A federal judge dealt a setback to the teaching of intelligent design in public schools by ruling Tuesday, December December 20, that a Pennsylvania school district's policy promoted an unconstitutional variation of creationism, a religious theory.

U.S. Middle District Judge John E. Jones, who presided over a six-week trial in Harrisburg, Pa., ruled that intelligent design violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which bars government from establishing a religion or favoring one religion over another.

Jones said it is "abundantly clear" the Dover Area School District's policy — which requires that ninth-grade students hear a statement on intelligent design prior to the start of a unit on evolution — "violates the Establishment Clause."

Jones added: "In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal issue 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."

The landmark case, which garnered international attention, pitted the American Civil Liberties Union and 11 parents in the Dover district against the school board's policy.

Proponents of intelligent design say the universe and many living things are so complex that they must have been created by an intelligent, higher being. Critics say intelligent design is unscientific, rooted in creationism and a barely veiled attempt to bring religion into public schools.

Opponents to the Dover policy said the board was motivated by religious beliefs, specifically Christianity, when it approved a one-minute statement in which evolution is described as "not a fact" and intelligent design is mentioned as an alternative explanation of the origin of life.

Advocates of intelligent design criticized Jones, a Republican appointee of President Bush, as an activist judge. They promised the decision will have limited effect because it applies only to the federal court district in which it was handed down.

"Anyone who thinks a court ruling is going to kill off interest in intelligent design is living in another world," said John West, associate director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank researching intelligent design.

"Americans don't like to be told there is some idea that they aren't permitted to learn about. It used to be said that banning a book in Boston guaranteed it would be a best-seller. Banning intelligent design in Dover will likely only fan interest in the theory."

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Casey Luskin, a Discovery Institute attorney, also downplayed the decision.

"In the larger debate over intelligent design, this decision will be of minor significance," said Luskin. She said the theory's "ultimate validity" will be determined "not by the courts but by the scientific evidence pointing to design."

During the trial, witnesses testified about intelligent design's religious roots and how the word "creationism" was systematically replaced with "intelligent design" in draft versions of the pro-intelligent design text Of Pandas and People.

Other witnesses testified that school board members spoke of the need for prayer in class and for creationism to be taught equally with evolution.

Eight board members who favored the policy were voted out of office November 8. Since they were replaced by new board members opposing intelligent design, there is no reason to appeal the decision, said Luskin.

The York County school district, about 25 miles south of Harrisburg, was the first in the country to require the reading of a statement on intelligent design in science class. Experts on both sides of the issue had said that if the policy were allowed to stand in Dover, other public school districts around the country might be emboldened to add intelligent design to their science classes.

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Previous coverage of Intelligent Design includes:

Design Film Sparks Angst | Under fire, Smithsonian disavows presentation on Intelligent Design. (July 6, 2005)
Designed Dispute | Curriculum critical of evolution nears approval in Kansas. (June 13, 2005)
Science that Backs Up Faith | There is overwhelming evidence for a creator, says Lee Strobel. (June 1, 2005)
Verdict that Demands Evidence | It is Darwinists, not Christians, who are stonewalling the facts. (March 28, 2005)
Were the Darwinists Wrong? | National Geographic stacks the deck. (Nov. 23, 2004)
The Art of Debating Darwin | How to intelligently design a winning case for God's role in creation. (Sept. 08, 2004)
Unintelligent Debate | It's time to cool the rhetoric in the Intelligent Design dispute. (Sept. 03, 2004)
The Dick Staub Interview: William Dembski's Revolution | The author of Intelligent Design set out to answer the toughest questions about the movement he helped promote. (March 30, 2004)
Intelligent Design Battle Moves to Ohio | Opponents say the movement is trying to do an end run around science. (Aug. 23, 2002)
'A Nuclear Bomb' For Evolution? | Critics of Darwinism say skull's discovery isn't all it's cracked up to be. (Aug. 14, 2002)
Your Darwin Is Too Large | Evolution's significance for theology has been greatly exaggerated. (May 25, 2000)