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On Feb. 14, Judge John E. Jones 3d addressed a crowd at the Lutheran Theological Seminary, as part of the first lecture series at the new Mt. Airy School of Religion. Jones presided over the Dover, Pa., "intelligent design" trial, eventually ruling that the Dover school board could not order teachers to read a statement referring to intelligent design in classes discussing evolution. During his address, Jones, a Lutheran, said he diverged from those who insisted that either the Bible or the U.S. Constitution should be read literally. He spoke of the excitement and pride with which he conducted the trial: "Most federal judges will tell you they assume their positions to decide important cases." Before his talk, Jones spoke with The Inquirer about when he first heard of intelligent design, and what it was like to be a part of judicial history.
The Inquirer: Some have said your ruling wasn't about church and state but about whether intelligent design is science.
Jones: I think that the ruling followed precedent, both the Lemon test [a three-part test, based on Supreme Court rulings, of whether a government action violates the separation of church and state] and the establishment test [from the First Amendment of the Constitution, which forbids Congress from making any law "establishing religion"], and I'm reluctant to characterize what that "means." The controversial part of the ruling was whether intelligent design is in fact science. Lost in the post-decision debate was that both sides, plaintiffs and defense, asked me to rule on that issue. Clearly, that was resolved based on the scientific evidence presented at the trial. That portion of the opinion seems to have been scrutinized, and praised or criticized, more than the part of the decision grounded in the two tests.
Inquirer: There are a lot of people who are distressed by the ruling, who feel that it seems to be a ruling about the legitimacy of belief.
Jones: A case like this involves an issue that is highly charged and very emotional... . I understand that there is a debate in the United States about where you draw the line, about where the establishment clause comes into play to prohibit certain activities by government, in this case the school board. And there is a subjective element to that line-drawing. All I can say to the critics is that I assiduously tried to find the facts and apply the legal precedents to the facts as I found them... . And indeed, I didn't know until December 2004 what intelligent design was.
Inquirer: Where did you first learn of it?
Jones: I was driving home from Harrisburg one day in December 2004, and I heard on a radio show that a group of parents had filed suit in this particular case, and that it was in the middle district of Pennsylvania, and of course I wondered, because we have random assignments: Did I get the case? My curiosity thus piqued, I looked at my computer the next morning when I got to my chambers, and I saw the initials "J.E.J." after Kitzmiller v. Dover, knew that it was assigned to me, read the complaint, and that really - if I'd read about intelligent design before, I don't recall, and I certainly didn't understand what the term meant... . People have asked me, "Did you sort of make yourself an expert? Did you read up on things?" and the answer is no, I didn't... . I tell my jurors, "Don't read things outside the courtroom. Don't make yourself an expert. You get everything you need to decide the case inside the courtroom." We had marvelous presentations in this case, and I got everything I needed during the trial, and before and after the trial, in terms of the submissions, so I certainly have developed a good working knowledge of the issue.
Inquirer:Reading through the opinion, it was hard to evade the impression that you were surprised at the weakness of one side of the case. You used very strong language to characterize the case as a whole and the presentation.
Jones: I'll answer that question indirectly... . The opinion speaks for itself. There was something I said in the opinion that was grossly misunderstood... . I said that on the issue of whether intelligent design was science, that there wasn't a judge in the United States in a better position to decide that than I was. [Commentator Phyllis] Schlafly interpreted that as my saying that I am so brilliant and erudite that I could decide that better than anyone else could. What I meant was that no one else had sat through an intensive six weeks of largely scientific testimony, and in addition to the task at hand, which was to decide the case, I wanted the opinion to stand as a primer for people across the country... . I wanted it to stand as a primer so that folks on both sides of the issue could read it, understand the way the debate is framed, see the testimony in support and against the various positions... and what is heartening to me is that it's now evident that it's being used in that way... . We did some of the lifting in that trial. To my mind... it would be a dreadful waste of judicial resources, legal resources, taxpayer money... to replicate this trial someplace else. That's not to say it won't be, but I suspect it may not be... . And I purposefully allowed the trial to extend and a record to be made... the defendants could never say that they weren't given the opportunity to present their case. I didn't cut off anybody's testimony, I didn't cut off anybody's presentation, and I allowed the testimony to be put forth in the ways the parties wanted it to be presented.
Inquirer:So you were aware that this trial was a trail-blazer, a foundation-setter?
Jones: History... is written well after the fact, and I don't know how history is going to treat this... decision. Is it Scopes II? Is it something that people will ruminate about years from now? We can't know that. I certainly knew... from the moment I took the bench from the first day of the trial that there was a great spotlight on it.