Judge Discusses ‘Scopes II’ Trial, Intelligent Design, and the Constitution

Judge Jones struck down the teaching of intelligent design as unconstitutional in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. (Photo by Brendan O’Hara)
Judge Jones struck down the teaching of intelligent design as unconstitutional in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. (Photo by Brendan O’Hara)

On Monday, Nov. 2, U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones III visited the College, speaking on the topic of “Our Constitution’s Intelligent Design.” The speech was co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Democracy and the Department of Biology as the 2009 William O.E. Sterling Lecture in Law and Politics.

Jones presided over the highly-controversial landmark case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. Decided in 2005, the case was the first to challenge a public school district in Federal court on the basis of a requirement to teach intelligent design as an alternative to evolution as an explanation of the origin of life.

At the beginning of his speech, Jones gave a brief history of the case. Eleven parents of students in a Pennsylvania school district brought action because of a policy to teach intelligent design as opposed to evolution in ninth grade biology classes. The school district’s reasoning behind this decision was the idea that “there are flaws or gaps in the theory of evolution.” Intelligent design follows that “certain organisms are so complex, irreducibly so, that they must be the product of an intelligent designer.” Suing under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the parents alleged that the school board was “deliberately motivated to promote creationism.” The case was tried over a six-week period, and in early November 2005, Jones struck down the policy, finding the school board to be motivated by religion, a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

When asked why we are still talking about the case in 2009, Jones responded with several tales of “not-so-marvelous experiences” in the aftermath of the case, not limited to but including death threats. He then explained that the case is relevant because it solidifies the role of the U.S. Constitution as the “absolute bedrock of our legal system.” Jones explained that he cannot emphasize this enough, especially because the “concept of judicial independence is very misunderstood.” He noted that judges do not decide cases on a whim, they decide them by “adhering to the law without bias.” It is difficult for the public to understand how judges operate, but put simply, judges at the trial level are bound by precedent passed down by higher courts.

In closing, Jones advocated for a better civics education across the country. He quoted former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “we lack a good knowledge of democracy: it is not stamped on our genetic material; it must be learned and relearned.”

Jones was adamant about preserving the idea that no one is above the law. He fielded several questions at the end of the speech, most of which were directed at his personal views on creationism and teaching intelligent design in public schools. In response to several critical remarks on his political ideology, Jones answered honestly (he is a registered Republican), and calmly assured the audience that liberalism or conservatism should not be a concern because the law governs decisions.

“We had great turnout–about 90 people were there, including students, alumni, community members and the Sterling family,” said Michael Cain, political science professor and director of the Center for the Study of Democracy. “It was a good crowd and a fun night.”

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