Hurst v. Newman:
Lawsuit about teaching ID
in Lebec, CA public schools:
The El Tajon Unified School District, its superintendent, a teacher,
and school board members are the defendants in a lawsuit launched by parents of
13 students in Frazier Mountain High in Lebec, CA. Lebec is a rural
town of 1,285 population located in the Tehachapi mountains about 63 miles north
of Los Angeles. 1,2 The
lawsuit in federal court claims that the District's teaching of Intelligent
Design (ID) is a violation of the principle of church and state. Unlike the
earlier case in Pennsylvania which involved the teaching
of ID in science class, this lawsuit concerns the teaching of ID in a what has
been described as a philosophy class where the rules may be different.
Generally speaking, material taught in public schools must not
One faith group's religious belief over another.
Religion over a secular lifestyle
A secular lifestyle over religion.
However, a class in philosophy or comparative religion might be
constitutional if it taught ID and the theory of evolution, and
young earth creation science as taught by many conservative Protestant para-church
groups, and the creation stories of a variety of other religions. The
main criteria is that it be a balanced treatment.
The situation is somewhat analogous to manger scenes
at Christmas time which are often erected by municipal governments. By
itself, a manger scene is unconstitutional because it is religious display and
violates the principle of separation of church and state. But it may be
considered constitutional if it is accompanied by a Christmas tree -- regarded
by the courts to be a secular symbol -- Frosty the snowman, and Santa Claus --
also regarded as a secular symbol. The assembly then becomes a cultural display
that is only partly religious. Similarly, posting the Ten
Commandments in a school or municipal building is
unconstitutional. But posting the Decalogue along with the Magna Carta,
Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and other secular documents
makes the combination a cultural display which is generally constitutional.
This is an elective class, called "Philosophy of Design."
Superintendent John Wight has said that the class is not being taught as
science. It is an opportunity for students to debate ID. He allegedly had
consulted the school district's attorneys who "had told him that as long as
the course was called 'philosophy,' " it would be constitutional." This
appears to be a strange interpretation of constitutional law. If it were true,
then the ID promotion in Dover PA could have been found
constitutional if they simply renamed their science class as a philosophy class.
Wight wrote that "our legal advisors have pointed out they are unaware of
any court or California statute which has forbidden public schools to explore
cultural phenomena, including history, religion or creation myths." He said
that he would "promptly intervene if anyone should stray into teaching or
advocating the tenets of any religion or creed, including intelligent design."
A description of the course that was sent to parents in 2005-DEC indicated
"The class will take a close look at evolution as a theory and will
discuss the scientific, biological and biblical aspects that suggest why
Darwin's philosophy is not rock solid. The class will discuss intelligent
design as an alternative response to evolution. Physical and chemical
evidence will be presented suggesting the earth is thousands of years old,
The second purpose of the class -- to convince the students that the earth is
only a few thousands of years old -- is called young
earth creationism. To our knowledge, it is promoted only by conservative
Protestants and many Muslim groups.
The Board of Trustees approved the entire winter session curriculum,
including a revised class on the Philosophy of Design on 2006-JAN-01, by
a vote of 3 to 2. They were not allowed to vote on the Philosophy of Design
course separately. It is not known whether the two trustees who voted against
the motion were concerned about the constitutional aspects of the ID course, or
the expenses of a lawsuit over the course, or for some other reason.
The class plan relied solely on videos, not on outside speakers. The original
syllabus for the class listed 24 videos which might be used. Americans United
for Separation of Church and State said that all but one of them advocates
"...religious perspectives and present religious theories as scientific ones.''
Sharon Lemburg, a social studies teacher, is teaching the course. She has a
bachelor of arts degree in physical education and social science. Her depth of
knowledge of science and philosophy is not reported in the media. However, the
lawsuit alleges that she
"...has no training or certification in the teaching of science, religion
or philosophy,...[and is] the wife of the minister for the local Assembly
of God Church, a Christian fundamentalist church, and a proponent of a
creationist world view."
The Assembly of God denomination, along with other fundamentalist and
many other Evangelical denominations, promotes a literal interpretation of the
biblical creation stories in Genesis. They interpret these verses as implying a
young earth that was created -- along with all existing plants and animals -- by
God less than 10,000 years ago. This is called "young-earth
According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, they
sent a letter on 2006-JAN-04:
"....to Superintendent John Wight and school board members advising them
that teaching a particular religious viewpoint in a public school class
violates the constitutional separation of church and state. After school
officials refused to discontinue the course, Americans United...[on JAN-10]
asked the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, Fresno
Division, for a temporary restraining order to end the class. The Hurst
v. Newman lawsuit is being filed on behalf of 11 parents of students in
the school district. 3
The lawsuit says, in part:
"The course was designed to advance religious theories on the origins of
life, including creationism and its offshoot, 'intelligent design.'....the
course relies exclusively on videos that advocate religious perspectives and
present religious theories as scientific ones — and because the teacher has
no scientific training, students are not provided with any critical analysis
of the presentation."
The plaintiffs have requested a temporary restraining order to stop the four
week course, half-way through.
Some comments about the lawsuit:
Kitty Jo Nelson is one of two school board members who opposed the
curriculum. She said: "I'm extremely disappointed and saddened." She
believes that the costs of the lawsuit would negatively affect the students.
Kenneth Hurst, a plaintiff, a Quaker, a parent
with children in the 10th and 12th
grades, and a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada
Flintridge with a doctorate in geology said in court papers that the class
"conflicts with my beliefs as a scientist. I believe this class
undermines the sound scientific principles taught in Frazier Mountain
High School's biology curriculum and is structured in a way that
deprives my children of the opportunity to be presented with an
objective education that would aid the development of their critical
He also wrote that the class also interfered with his personal religious
views as a Quaker and "reflects a preference for fundamentalist
Christianity over all other religious and scientific viewpoints."
Casey Luskin is the legal affairs director of the Discovery Institute,
a Washington state group that is the main promoters of ID. He said that if
the plaintiffs are trying to keep the students from hearing of alternatives
to evolution, then that would be "censorship." However, if the class
is teaching "young-earth creationism or biblical creationism as fact,
that will get them into legal trouble. I would like to see the full course
syllabus before making a definitive judgment."
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United said
that the course is "the wave of the future throughout the United States"
for ID promoters. He said:
"It is my understanding that this school district has been approached
by other school districts to clone this course and use it elsewhere.
That is why this is of national significance. We would like to build a
retaining wall against that wave in this case."
He concluded that the course description implies that the class "...is
not philosophy or comparative religion....[It] is a teacher trying to trump
science with religion."
In a note appearing on the American United's web site, he wrote:
"This situation has nothing to do with academic freedom or teaching
critical thinking, as school officials contend. This is a clear case of
government promotion of religion, and it violates the U.S. Constitution.
Public schools serve children of many faiths and none, and the
curriculum should never single out a particular religious viewpoint for
preferential treatment." 3
Americans United, and the law firm Arnold & Porter LLP, announced on
2005-JAN-17 that they had settled the lawsuit with the El Tejon Unified School
District. The out of court agreement involves two commitment:
The ID course at Frazier Mountain High will be terminated one
The School District's Board of Trustees has also agreed that:
"No school over
which the School District has authority, including the High School, shall offer,
presently or in the future, the course entitled 'Philosophy of Design' or 'Philosophy of Intelligent Design'
or any other course that promotes or endorses creationism, creation
science, or intelligent design."
Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United said:
"We are delighted with the board’s decision to discontinue the
'Philosophy of Design' course and never offer it again. Public schools have
no business promoting religion. I hope that other public schools learn from
this incident and reject efforts to bring religious doctrines into
Ayesha N. Khan, legal director for Americans United said:
"This course was far from intelligently designed. It was an infomercial
for creationism and its offshoot, intelligent design. The class would never
have survived a court challenge, and the board of trustees made the right
call by pulling the plug on it."
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
"Calif. School Sued Over Evolution Class. The class at the center of this
controversy teaches intelligent design in an elective philosophy class,"
Associated Press, 2006-JAN-11, at:
Henry Weinstein, "1st Suit in State to Attack 'Intelligent Design' Filed,"
Los Angeles Times, 2006-JAN-11, at:
"Americans United Sues California School District
Over 'Intelligent Design' Class," Americans United, 2006-JAN-10, at:
The text of the lawsuit filed in United States
District Court, Eastern District of California, is at:
"California School District Agrees To Drop
Creationism Course, Settle Lawsuit. El Tejon School Officials Agree Not To Offer
Controversial Class Again," Americans United, 2006-JAN-17, at: