Eight families have filed a lawsuit against a school district that is requiring students to learn about alternatives to the theory of evolution, claiming the curriculum violates...

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HARRISBURG, Pa. — Eight families have filed a lawsuit against a school district that is requiring students to learn about alternatives to the theory of evolution, claiming the curriculum violates the separation of church and state.

The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the lawsuit is the first to challenge whether public schools should teach “intelligent design,” a theory first advanced in the late 1980s, which holds that the universe is so complex that it must have been created by some higher power. The two organizations are representing the parents in the federal lawsuit.

The Dover Area School District voted 6-3 on Oct. 18 to require ninth-grade biology teachers to read a statement that Darwin’s theory of evolution, that life evolved through a process of natural selection, is “not fact” and that “gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence.” The directive, scheduled to go into effect in January, is believed to be the first such requirement in the country.

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The ACLU contends that intelligent design is “neither scientific nor a theory in the scientific sense; it is an inherently religious argument.”

Witold Walczak, legal director for the Pennsylvania ACLU chapter, called intelligent design “a Trojan horse for bringing religious creationism back into the public school science classroom.”

One of the parents bringing suit, Tammy Kitzmiller, expressed concern that the school board would mandate the teaching of “something that isn’t accepted as science.” Kitzmiller has two children who attend Dover High School.

Officials of the school district, which has 3,600 pupils, could not be reached yesterday to comment on the case.

School board member William Buckingham, who led the change as the leader of the board’s curriculum committee, has said that he proposed the change as a way to balance evolution with competing theories that present an alternative view of how life began.

Two of the three dissenting Dover board members have resigned in protest. Angie Yingling, a board member who originally supported the policy, said she later reconsidered her vote.

“Anyone with half a brain should have known we were going to be sued,” she said. “You can’t do this.”

At least one other district has recently become embroiled in federal litigation over teaching evolution. A federal judge in Georgia is considering the constitutionality of a suburban Atlanta district’s decision to include a warning sticker about evolution in biology textbooks.