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Intelligent redesign

U.S. District Judge John Jones III is portrayed by Jay Benedict in this courtroom

re-enactment from the documentary "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial."

Two years after a trial over the teaching of intelligent design, a public-TV documentary retells the courtroom drama in a style that the judge in the case says is "almost like a whodunit, with a science angle and a sprinkling of the law besides." But unlike "Law and Order," the story didn't end when U.S. District Judge John Jones III issued his withering 139-page ruling equating intelligent design with religion. Instead, Darwinism’s detractors are back with a vengeance.

"Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial," premiering tonight, isn't your typical "Nova" science documentary: The two-hour show combines archived video, up-to-date interviews and courtroom re-enactments to flesh out the story behind Kitzmiller v. Dover. Along the way, "Judgment Day" examines the decades-old cultural roots of the conflict as well as the contemporary findings behind modern-day evolutionary theory.

The way "Nova" tells it, the tale began at Pennsylvania's Dover Area High School with the mysterious disappearance and burning of a student-painted mural tracing human origins. Soon afterward, school board members started asking questions about how evolution was being taught.

Eventually, the board required school staffers to tell their biology students about intelligent design - the claim that some characteristics of living organisms are so complex that they're best explained as the handiwork of an intelligent agent (God? aliens?). Some of the teachers bristled at this, so much so that they filed suit against the district.

"Judgment Day" traces the courtroom arguments for each side, with biologist Ken Miller as a star witness for the pro-Darwin plaintiffs and biologist Michael Behe leading the anti-Darwin witness list. (The judge and the witnesses are generally played by actors in the re-enactment.) Because scientific findings were so central to the case, we learn about some key lines of evidence such as the fusion that resulted in human chromosome 2, the transitional fossil fish known as Tiktaalik, the rise of the bacterial flagellum and other phenomena

The show also reveals how the trial divided the Dover community outside the courtroom. For example, husband-and-wife biology teachers were labeled as "godless" even though they were leaders at their local church. Another rift, between local newspaper reporter Lauri Lebo and her fundamentalist Christian father, never had a chance to heal.

After the six-week trial ended, Judge Jones (a Bush II appointee) surprised observers by issuing a strong rebuke to intelligent design's supporters. Jones wrote that the concept was "a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory." Because the pro-ID school board members were voted out en masse in an election the previous month, there was no appeal.


 Judge John Jones III

 looks back at "Judgment

 Day" on NBC's TODAY

 show. Click on the image

 to watch the video.

"It was a case for our times," Jones told NBC's TODAY show today. But as "Judgment Day" makes clear, the case did not end the controversy. Intelligent design's backers - led by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute - are continuing the fight using fresh strategies.

One strategy is to look back in anger, branding Jones' decision as an outrageous case of distortion and "judicial activism." That's the tack taken in "Traipsing Into Evolution," a Discovery-published tract that runs to almost as many pages as the decision itself.

Another strategy is to go back to basics and focus on Darwinian theory as the root of evils such as eugenics, lobotomies, sterilizations and sexual excess. That comes through loud and clear in the advance notices for "Darwin Day in America," written by Discovery senior fellow John West. In this, West appears to hark back to the "Wedge Document," which saw attacks on scientific materialism as the first step in a cultural rollback to a more God-fearing society.

And yet another strategy is simply to keep up the pro-ID drumbeat through a proliferating succession of blogs and podcasts. As "Judgment Day" makes its premiere, intelligent design's proponents are taking aim at the show - and even at its teaching guide.

Ironically, the Discovery Institute's Robert Crowther accuses PBS of encouraging public-school teachers to violate the Constitution by telling their students that evolutionary theory isn't necessarily inconsistent with religious belief. Crowther argues that merely making such an observation would itself be a religious statement.

It all goes to show that the Jones' judgment didn't put an end to the intelligent-design debate - but of course, we all knew that two years ago.

To get the updated picture from Darwin's defenders, you can click on over to the National Center for Science Education, as well as the Pharyngula blog and Panda's Thumb. For a status report on the creationist battle for the "hearts and minds of America's teachers," check out this article from Discover magazine.   Consult our Dover trial archive to take a walk down memory lane - and feel free to add your comments below.

P.S.: The best thing about "Judgment Day" is that the entire two-hour documentary will be freely available for watching online later this week.