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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Judging Intelligent Design: Should the Courts Decide What Counts as Science or Religion?

Our Fall semester opened with a lunch colloquium on September 27 with Jay Wexler, Associate Professor at the Boston University School of Law. An expert on constitutional issues involving religion and education, Wexler spoke about the recent controversy over teaching the theory of “intelligent design” as part of a science curriculum. His presentation, “Judging Intelligent Design: Should the Courts Decide What Counts as Science or Religion?” drew an interdisciplinary audience of physical and social scientists, theologians, and educators.

In a federal court case last year that many compared to the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, a federal judge barred a Pennsylvania public school district from teaching the theory of intelligent design (ID) in biology class, ruling that ID is a religious (not scientific) theory and therefore its teaching represented an unconstitutional establishment of religion in public schools. Wexler argued that the court’s 139-page opinion was a comprehensive and complete victory for ID opponents, but that it nevertheless presents a serious philosophical and jurisprudential problem: it puts judges in the position of definitively ruling what is—or is not—both science and religion. Legal precedent did not require the court to define “science” in order to declare ID a violation of the establishment clause; this judicial overreaching was thus both unnecessary (since the definition of non-legal terms are usually outside the bounds of law) and unfortunate (since it leaves these definitions open to future manipulation by judges and lawyers who might not be so conscientious). Finally, said Wexler, the decision also implied that religion and science are somehow mutually exclusive—something many scientists and theologians alike would contest.  

A robust conversation brought many questions to the table about the relationship between science and religion, and the challenges of teaching one or both in public schools.  As one guest asked: if science is a process, not a conclusion, then wouldn’t any subject that is scientifically examined—for example, the effects of prayer on health—be legitimate to teach in schools? No consensus was reached on an answer, of course, but the question spurred much thoughtful discussion.