NEW YORK – While Jewish organizations reacted predictably to a court ruling banning mention of "intelligent design" from Pennsylvania public school classes, observers and legal scholars said the decision was more significant than other recent battles over church-state separation.
The more liberal groups celebrated Tuesday’s decision, in which a federal judge ruled that a Pennsylvania school board had acted unconstitutionally when it ordered inclusion of "intelligent design" in its schools’ science curricula. Orthodox groups were less sanguine.
Still, most acknowledged that in the context of the "Christmas wars," in which politicians, pundits and television personalities are arguing over how religious Christmas should be in the United States, this decision is more consequential.
"This looms much larger much larger," said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs at Agudath Israel of America, a fervently Orthodox group. The display of trees and the like, he said, "are essentially symbolic displays of religion."
Intelligent design "goes to the essence of society: how we educate our children," said Shafran, lamenting the decision. "Belief in the creator is probably the most important aspect of any ethical, moral-minded parent’s concern in educating his children."
The board’s claim that the move was meant to bolster science education through inclusion of alternate theories to evolution was simply a cover for its religious motives, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III said in his closely watched decision.
"We find that the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to a pretext for the Board’s real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom," he wrote.
Nathan Lewin, a Washington attorney who has argued ‘7 cases before the Supreme Court, said he finds the basis for the judge’s ruling to be "nonsense."
"I think it’s dangerous to encourage litigation the outcome of which will depend on the motive of government officials," said Lewin, who often represents Orthodox interests.
The judge, in other words, should not be taking into account the intentions behind the school board member’s actions.
"Either the result is OK or its not OK," he said. "That’s what ought to be the standard."
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said that the so-called Christmas wars and the intelligent design case have a common thread. Both, he said, represent the effort of the religious right in the United States to shift their politics to focus on symbolic issues that are more acceptable to mainstream America.
The shift, he said, follows three decades in which the right lost key political battles on some of their key priorities, from abortion to school prayer.
The decision, Saperstein said, has "enormous significance in terms of the legal doctrine on church-state separation."
In the lead-up to this case, many Jewish groups made an argument similar to that made by Jones in his ruling: The notion that the universe is so immensely complex that it must have been created by some intelligent force, they said, was simply creationism cloaked in secular language.
Phyllis Snyder, president of the National Council of Jewish Women, echoed the view of several Jewish organizations when she called Tuesday’s decision a "resounding victory for religious and academic freedom."
It "should once and for all end the nationally orchestrated effort to insert religion into science classes. The place for teaching religious beliefs is in our homes and religious institutions, not the publicly funded classroom."
In October ‘004, the Dover Area School Board in Dover, Pa., ordered that, prior to ninth-grade classes on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, a statement be read labeling evolution as "not a fact" and referring students to another book on intelligent design to learn more. Several families opposed to the move filed a lawsuit.
Since then, the school board that proposed the inclusion of intelligent design was kicked out of office, but the case still went ahead.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, a centrist Orthodox organization, said he was "disturbed" that the judge ruled the mention of intelligent design unconstitutional.
"I would much rather have seen something that is left up to individual science departments in schools," he said. Nevertheless, Weinreb said, he believes that "science should be taught as science and religion should be taught as religion" and that the judge was not off-base in labeling intelligent design a religiously based idea.
"The Bible is not meant to be a scientific textbook," he said.
As for the import of the decision, Weinreb said that "the Christmas tree controversy is almost silly. Intelligent design is at least a serious discussion."
The Pennsylvania case is one of several evolution cases that have emerged in the last year. After a federal judge ordered a Georgia school district to remove stickers from textbooks that labeled evolution a "theory, not a fact," a federal appeals court there recently heard arguments on the stickers’ constitutionality.
Last month, Kansas education authorities adopted a new set of principles questioning evolution for their science departments.