In a trial that began on Monday, Sept. 26, a federal judge in Harrisburg has been called upon to decide whether intelligent design is a legitimate scientific theory. Once he has settled that controversy, perhaps he can tell us what killed the dinosaurs and whether there are civilizations on other planets.
The courts have to deal with some scientific issues, such as the reliability of DNA evidence and the side effects of arthritis drugs. But the origin of life, a subject that arouses strong emotions and implicates deeply held beliefs, has no obvious relevance to the guilt of murder suspects or the liability of pharmaceutical companies.
It has become a legal issue in Pennsylvania only because the parents of Dover are divided on the question of how public schools should address it. Some say children should be informed about the weaknesses of Darwinian theory, while others object to what they see as religious indoctrination in the guise of science instruction, which they argue amounts to an unconstitutional "establishment of religion."
Meanwhile, Sacramento attorney Michael S. Newdow, who has replaced Madelyn Murray O'Hair as the nation's most reviled atheist, has renewed his challenge to the Pledge of Allegiance. In a straightforward application of 9th Circuit precedent, a federal judge in San Francisco recently ruled that recitation of the pledge in public schools violates the Establishment Clause by imposing "a coercive requirement to affirm God."
Both of these cases are ostensibly about the separation of church and state. But they also highlight the need for the separation of school and state.
When schools are run by the government, the details of ninth-grade biology classes, the propriety of patriotic rituals, and every other educational issue -- ranging from how to teach math and reading to the contents of vending machines -- becomes a political issue. Even when the arguments don't end up in court, they generate acrimony and resentment that could be avoided if education were entirely a private matter.
I'm not suggesting that parents would be completely satisfied with their children's schools if the government got out of the education business. No doubt they would always find something to complain about. But if they were not compelled to pay for government-run schools, they would be in a better position to choose schools that reflected their values and preferences, and the compromises they made would be voluntary, instead of terms imposed by the winning side of a political battle.