Calif. parents sue to halt high school’s intelligent-design class

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

FRESNO, Calif. — A group of parents is suing a rural high school for teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution, saying the class should be stopped because it violates the U.S. Constitution.

The federal lawsuit accuses Frazier Mountain High School in Lebec of violating the separation of church and state by including intelligent design — the theory that living things are so complex they must have been designed by a higher being — in a philosophy course taught by a special-education teacher who is also a minister’s wife.

“The course was designed to advance religious theories on the origins of life, including creationism and its offshoot, ‘intelligent design,’” the suit said. “Because the teacher has no scientific training, students are not provided with any critical analysis of this presentation.”

According to the lawsuit, course instructor Sharon Lemburg, who is married to an Assembly of God pastor, has a bachelor’s degree in physical education and social science, but “has no training or certification in the teaching of science, religion or philosophy.”

The suit was filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which successfully blocked Dover, Pa., schools last month from using science courses to advance intelligent design.

Similar battles are being fought in Georgia and Kansas.

The suit filed on behalf of 11 parents against the El Tejon Unified School District names its superintendent, the course teacher and school board members as defendants.

Superintendent John Wight, who did not return a phone call for comment, said last week that the class, “Philosophy of Design,” was not being taught as science and was an opportunity for students to debate the controversial issue.

Defendant Kitty Jo Nelson, one of two school board trustees who opposed the class, said the costs of the lawsuit would ultimately deprive students. The regional school draws about 500 students from tiny communities to Lebec, a town of 1,285 straddling the Tehachapi mountains between the agricultural Central Valley and Los Angeles 75 miles to the south.

“I’m extremely disappointed and saddened,” she said.

Phone messages left at district offices for other trustees were not returned. Lemburg could not be reached by phone for comment.

The five-member school board was divided when it learned about the class last month and discovered three guest lecturers were scheduled to speak in support of intelligent design, but none in favor of evolution.

One pro-evolution speaker listed on the syllabus declined to participate because he disagreed with the class topic, and another — Nobel laureate Francis Crick, who co-discovered the structure of DNA — had died more than a year earlier.

An initial description sent to parents in December said the course would examine “evolution as a theory and will discuss the scientific, biological, and Biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin’s philosophy is not rock solid.”

The El Tejon district’s board of trustees approved the course 3-2 with a revised syllabus in a Jan. 1 special session, during which board members had to vote up or down on the entire winter session curriculum.

Fifteen students were enrolled when classes started two days later, with a less scientific and more philosophical class plan that relied solely on videos, not guest speakers.

Still, the Washington, D.C.-based group said that with only one exception the course “relies exclusively on videos that advocate religious perspectives and present religious theories as scientific ones.”

“This is clearly intended to introduce religion into a public school,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order to halt the four-week class in its second week.

The case is Hurst v. Newman, 06-00012.

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