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Rethinking Dover: Religion, Science, and the Values of Democratic Citizenship

  • Susan P. Liebell (a1)


The Dover decision restricted the mention of Intelligent Design in a public school science classroom yet the Dover opinion offers an inadequate defensive position. Liberal democracy can exclude Intelligent Design based on the Establishment Clause yet courts do not affirm the teaching of best available science or connect teaching science to other constitutional rights, duties, or institutions. Although Dover has triggered a debate over the role of religion in public and private life, the case reveals complex issues regarding science, citizenship, and the values of liberal democratic civic identity. In three sections, this article (1) reviews the creationism jurisprudence; (2) dissects the Dover decision; and (3) suggests an alternative juridical approach grounded in an education case, Plyler v. Doe, in which education creates citizens who are politically competent, economically fit, and capable of self-development. The conclusion reframes the debate over Intelligent Design as one of civic identity and political reproduction arguing that liberals, using the ideas of Brennan, Marshall, and Breyer must make a positive case for the role of science in shaping the liberal citizen, worker, and person.


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Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Susan P. Liebell, Saint Joseph's University, Department of Political Science, 5600 City Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19131. E-mail:


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1. Tammy Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District et al. 400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (2005), 1–2.

2. For examples of the ID texts, see Dembski, William A. 2007. Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science & Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; and Behe, Michael J. 2007. The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism. New York: Free Press. The scientific community rejects both the criticisms of evolutionary theory and the claim that Intelligent Design is science. See Miller, Kenneth R. 2008. Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul. New York: Viking; Pennock, T. Robert, ed. 2001. Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; Godfrey, Laurie R., ed. 1983. Scientists Confront Creationism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company; National Academy of Sciences. 1999. Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; Kitcher, Philip. 1982. Abusing Science: The Case against Creationism. Cambridge: MIT Press; Kitcher, Philip. 2006. Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith. Oxford: Oxford University Press; and Kitcher, Philip. 2003. Science, Truth, and Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

3. Moore, James R. 1979. The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870–1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Philip Kitcher insists that religions that emphasize providence are threatened by Darwin's theory of evolution. Kitcher, Philip. 2007. Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 19, 122126, 128–131.

4. John Scopes v. The State, 154 Tenn. 105, 289 S.W. 363 (1927).

5. During the 1920s, 45 anti-evolution bills were introduced in 21 states. Oklahoma, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas passed anti-evolution statutes. In addition to legislative efforts, governors pushed for changes including the censoring of textbooks. Lienesch, Michael. 2007. In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, The Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Anti-evolution Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 115 note 2, 176177.

6. Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 US 97 (1968).

7. Daniels v. Waters, 515 F. 2d 485 (1975).

8. Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 US 578 (1987). Justices Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, Stevens, O'Connor, and White held the bill unconstitutional while Justices Scalia and Rehnquist dissented. Justices Powell and White wrote concurrences. Justice O'Connor did not join Part II.

9. Edwards, 596 and 582 citing Court of Appeals, 765 F.2d 1251 (CA5 1985), emphasis supplied. See also Edwards, 590–594, 596, 582–583.

10. Edwards, 586, 593.

11. Dover, 20–21, 32–35.

12. Edwards v. Aguillard, 628, 611, 634, 622. In the early 20th century, authors of The Fundamental also provided scientists — often discredited or unknown — to discredit evolution. Likewise, it is common for modern ID supporters to “appeal to popular sentiment, insisting that an elitist scientific establishment prevented, 230.

13. Dover, 1–2.

14. The Lemon test asks if a government action: (1) has secular legislative purpose; (2) has as its primary effect the advancement of inhibition of religion; and (3) results in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion. Justice Warren E. Burger, Lemon v. Kurtzman 403 US 602 (1971).

15. O'Connor, concurring in Lynch v. Donnelly 465 US 668 (1984), 688. Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy prefer “coercion” as the measure of government establishment of religion. See Kennedy, concurring and dissenting, County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union), 492 US 573 (1989).

16. Dover, 19 quoting McLean v. Arkansas, 529 F. Supp. at 1258; Dover, 21. See also 19–21.

17. Dover, 22–23; Edwards, 593.

18. Dover, 19–35 (person), 36–50 (student), 50–64 (citizen). See also 49. Throughout his opinion, Jones refers to the ID movement as a unified group. ID is better understood as a coalition struggling with dissent over the strategic purging of references to God. Lienesch, 236–237.

19. Burger, Lemon v. Kurtzman 403 US 602 (1971).

20. Dover, 20–21, 32, 31–34.

21. Kitcher, Phillip develops these terms in Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 7, 18, 81–107, 114.

22. “(1) It is guided by natural law;( 2) It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law; (3) It is testable against the empirical world; (4) Its conclusions are tentative, i.e., are not necessarily the final word; and (5) It is falsifiable.” McLean v. Arkansas, 1267.

23. Dover, 64, 65, 70, 75, 79, 82–84, 87–89. Clearly, Jones' concern with supernatural causation and research can be mapped onto McLean's concern with natural aw and testability. Jones' third criterion — criticism of evolution has been refuted — attacks ID's negative thesis only.

24. Dover, 63. See also the fuller discussion of science at 63–89.

25. Edwards v. Aguillard, Amicus Curiae Brief of 72 Nobel Laureates, 17 State Academies of Science, and 7 other Scientific Organizations, in support of Appellees.

26. Dover, 63–64.

27. Edwards, 593.

28. Lienesch, 8, 60, 69–73, 83.

29. Ibid. 21, 27–28, 92, 95–96, 221–224.

30. Jones' historical summary can be found at Dover, 18–19, 91–92.

31. Dover, 42 citing 529 F. Supp. at 1266. See also 21, 49–50.

32. Jones does not use these more theoretical terms but his discussion implies them: Dover, 24–31, 71–75, 130–134.

33. Dover, 93 and see also 42, 68–69, 71.

34. Edwards v. Aguillard, Amicus Curiae Brief of 72 Nobel Laureates, 17 State Academies of Science, and 7 other Scientific Organizations, in support of Appellees, 4, emphasis added.

35. See Bailyn, Bernard. 1960. Education in the Forming of American Society: Needs and Opportunities for Study. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press; Cremin, Lawrence A. 1970. American Education: The Colonial Experience 1607–1783. New York: Harper; Pillars, Carl F. Kaestle. 1983. Republican: Common Schools and American Society, 1780–1860. New York: Hill and Wang; and Reese, William J. 2005. America's Public Schools: From the Common School to “No Child Left Behind.” Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

36. See Farrand, 2:321; Journal, 18 Aug, 2:505; Journal, 5 Sept.; and 2:595; Committee of Style. The Founders Constitution, edited by Lerner, Ralph and Kurland, Philip (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987).

37. Plyler v. Doe, 457 US 202 (1982) was a 5-4 decisions with Justices Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, and Stevens in the majority. Justices Burger, White, Rehnquist, and O'Connor dissented. The Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment establishes the children as “persons” who cannot be discriminated against unless a substantial state interest can be demonstrated.

38. Plyler v. Doe, 221, 223. Brennan cites Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 US 203(1963), Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 US 390 (1923), Brown v. Board of Education, 347 US 483 (1954), and Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 US 205 (1972). A growing set of state cases specify the connection between education, civic capacity, and preparation for employment. For example, the New York Court of Appeals held that education should create: (1) voters who have the “intellectual tools to evaluate complex issues, such as campaign finance reform, tax policy, and global warming” and the capacity to vote; (2) jurors who could “determine questions of fact concerning DNA evidence, statistical analyses, and convoluted financial fraud.”; and (3) citizens who could economically support themselves so that they were not dependent on the state for resources and could help expand the economy. Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State, 100 NY 2d 893, 801 NE 2d 326 (NY 2003), 951. Though the court does not specify science education, the cited examples used suggest its importance. The National Academy of Science highlights the relationship between DNA theory and evolution. Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Science 2nd Edition (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999), “Evidence Supporting Biological Evolution,” pp. 5–9,

39. Plyler, 221, 224, 222. Clearly, individual economic capacity has collective benefits as well.

40. Plyler, 222, emphasis added.

41. San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 US 1 (1973), Marshall dissenting, 71, 102, 110–114, 117. Marshall quotes from Williams v. Rhodes, 393 U.S. 23, 32 (1968) and Schenck v. United States, 249 US 47 (1919). Marshall's concurrence in Plyler is heavily based on this earlier opinion.

42. San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 114, citing Reynolds v. Sims 377 US 533 (1964). While the studies Marshall cites are dated, two recent articles support Marshall. Appealing to civic education theory, Hillygus claims a direct correlation between voting rates and taking the SAT/attending a four year college while Burden argues that education influences turnout and the effect of college education on voting increases in the 1980s. Burden, however, maintains that education levels — not merely education — affect voting with the more highly educated voting more. Hillygus, D. Sunshine. 2005. “The Missing Link: Exploring the Relationship between Higher Education and Political Education and Political Engagement.Political Behavior 27:2547. Burden, Barry C. 2009. “The Dynamic Effects of Education on Voter Turnout.Electoral Studies 28:540549.

43. San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 112–113, emphasis added.

44. Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 US 205 (1972), 245.

45. My understanding of the public and private goods distinction has been enhanced by Reich, Rob, and William S. Koski. 2007. “The State's Obligation to Provide Education: Adequate Education or Equal Education?” Unpublished paper delivered to the American Political Science Association.

46. Although they cannot be considered in detail here, other Supreme Court cases support education as necessary for creating “self-supporting” and “law abiding” citizens who can “discharge the duties and responsibilities of citizenship,” prevent tyranny, support the “general welfare of society, and be “self-sufficient members of society.” In addition, education promotes “civic virtues,” prepares individuals to participate as citizens and fulfill “social responsibilities,” and preserves the democratic “values on which our society rests.” See Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 US 205 (1972) and Ambach v. Norwick, 441 US 68 (1970).

47. John Adams presents a very similar understanding of rights in Dissertation on the Feudal and Canon Law (1765) The Portable John Adams, edited by Diggins, John Patrick (New York: Penguin 2004).

48. Breyer, Stephen. 2005. Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

49. Breyer, 8–9.

50. Breyer, 46–47, 57–58, 64–66, 70–71, 101.

51. Breyer does not need an appeal to ancient liberty, Benjamin Constant, or Pocockian historiography to assert that the constitutional requires citizens, at the very least, able to present tyranny. Breyer mentions Adams only a few times (3, 21–22, 135) but Adams desires education as a public good (tyranny prevention, protection of free press) and a private good (enlightenment of the individual). See John Adams, Dissertation on the Feudal and Canon Law.

52. Galston calls these two approaches the Reformation and Enlightenment projects. Galston, William A. 1995. “Two Concepts of Liberalism.Ethics 105:516534.

53. Taylor, Charles. 2004. Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press.

54. Dewey articulates the relationship between democracy and scientific method in ways that may be helpful. Dewey, John. 1995. Classic American Philosophers, ed. Max, Fisch. New York: Fordham University Press: “Democracy and Education,” 223–227; “The Influence of Darwinism,” 340–343; “The Supremacy of Method,” 348–357; “The Construction of Good,” 367–373, 378; “Science and Society,” 381–388; “Creative Democracy”; Dewey, John. 1916. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: The Free Press, 219221, 224, 228–230.

55. Macedo, Stephen. 2000. Diversity and Distrust: Civic Education in a Multicultural Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2000; Callan, Eomann. 1997. Creating Citizens: Political Education and Liberal Democracy Oxford: Oxford University Press; Levinson, Meira. 1999. The Demands of Liberal Education. Oxford: Oxford University Press; and Reich, Rob. 2002. Bridging Liberalism and Multiculturalism in American Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

56. Grant, Ruth W. 2002. “Political Theory, Political Science, and Politics.Political Theory 30:584585.

57. Elkins, Jeremy. 2006. “Revolutionary Politics.” Theory & Event 9:4.

The author thanks Lisa Baglione, James Boettcher, Cristina Beltrán, Christopher Buck, James Carter, Michael Clapper, Ingrid Creppell, Ann Davies, Brad Evans, Sophie Evans, Ruth Grant, Steven Kelts, Jack Knight, Elizabeth Linehan, John McCormick, Caroline Meline, Anne R. Newman, Rob Reich, and Regina Robson for helpful comments. Discussions with colleagues at the Jack Wright Memorial Speaker Series at The George Washington University, the Political Theory Workshop at The University of Chicago, and Duke University's Political Theory Workshop enhanced and focused the arguments. She is particularly indebted to Richard Warren for his insights on the Plyler case and Tory Ferrera as a writing partner. Meghan Sprout provided valuable research and editorial assistance. Phil Schatz and Kevin Shalla were crucial to the final version.

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Rethinking Dover: Religion, Science, and the Values of Democratic Citizenship

  • Susan P. Liebell (a1)


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