January 15, 2006
Common Ground on Church-State Question?
By Thomas Bray

Shortly before Christmas a federal judge in Pennsylvania threw out a local school board’s effort to include “intelligent design” as part of the high school science curriculum. His outspoken ruling, which denounced intelligent design as “a sham,” received national attention.

At nearly the same time, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a display in a Kentucky courthouse that included the 10 Commandments. That decision went virtually unnoticed, probably because it failed to meet the media’s view of the politically correct outcome. But taken together, the two decisions point to common ground on the church-state issues at the heart of America’s cultural wars.

The Kentucky case involved an American Civil Liberties Union suit challenging a display entitled “Foundations of American Law and Government” that had been erected in the Mercer County courthouse. Unlike some other displays, the Mercer County display was found to have a secular, educational purpose. Among the other items in the display were copies of the Mayflower Compact, the Magna Carta, the Star-Spangled Banner, the preamble to the state constitution and the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution.

Most invoke a Creator, but all are critical to the American founding. “If the reasonable observer perceived all government references to the Deity as endorsements,” wrote Richard Suhrheinrich, the Michigan-based appeals judge who authored the unanimous opinion, “then many of our Nation’s cherished traditions would be unconstitutional.” Suhurheinrich went on to castigate as “tiresome” the argument that the First Amendment requires a rigid “wall of separation” between state and religion.

That’s a far cry from saying government is free to propagate religion, of course. In Pennsylvania, Federal District Judge John E. Jones III -- appointed to office by George Bush in 2002 -- ruled that “intelligent design,” which holds that life is so complex that it couldn’t have evolved by mere Darwinian accident, amounts to a form of religion. Who, after all, is the intelligent designer if not God?

Thus, ruled Jones, to teach intelligent design as scientific fact in taxpayer-funded schools amounts to an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Jones’ opinion went a bit overboard, angrily blistering the “breathtaking inanity” of the Dover, Pa., school board and accusing intelligent design supporters on the school board of lying about their motives. But his basic point is likely to survive appeal.

If backers of intelligent design are, well, intelligent, their money might be better spent lobbying for science courses that give a better sense of the vigorous scientific debate among Darwinians themselves about the unsettled specifics of evolution and “natural selection.” Ohio did just that in 2004 when it adopted new guidelines for its science curriculum.

This alerts students to the fact that ultimately there may be other explanations for how we got here. And it places Darwinians in the position of either taking seriously the essence of science, skepticism and open debate, or pleading guilty to the sin of dogma themselves.

Many states also are reviewing curriculum requirements. In Michigan, for example, the state school board has proposed making science, math, English and foreign language required for graduation. Currently only a single course in civics is required. Why not add a required course in American history that includes a unit on its religious heritage? Respect for the scientific method – which, it’s important to note, has enemies on the left as well as the right – is essential. But so is the fact that George Washington couldn’t envision a successful system of self-government without respect for God.

Thomas Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

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