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Intelligent Design (ID)

Hurst v. Newman:
Lawsuit about teaching ID
in Lebec, CA public schools:

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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 promote:

bullet One faith group's religious belief over another.
bullet Religion over a secular lifestyle
bullet 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. 

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The class:

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 that:

"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, not billions."

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 creationism."

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The lawsuit:

According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, they sent a letter on 2006-JAN-04:

" 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:

bullet 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.
bullet 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 thinking skills."

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."

bullet 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."
bullet 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 " 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

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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:

bullet The ID course at Frazier Mountain High will be terminated one week early.
bullet 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 classrooms."

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."

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "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:
  2. Henry Weinstein, "1st Suit in State to Attack 'Intelligent Design' Filed," Los Angeles Times, 2006-JAN-11, at:
  3. "Americans United Sues California School District Over 'Intelligent Design' Class," Americans United, 2006-JAN-10, at:
  4. The text of the lawsuit filed in United States District Court, Eastern District of California, is at:
  5. "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:

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How you got here:

Home page > Intolerance/conflict news >  here

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Copyright © 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2006-JAN-16
Latest update: 2006-JAN-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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