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The Devil in Dover: An Insider's Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America

The Devil in Dover: An Insider's Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America

by Lauri Lebo

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“A brilliant account” of the controversial 2005 legal battle between evolution and creationism in public education “by a first-rate journalist” (Howard Zinn).
In 2004, the School Board of Dover, Pennsylvania, decided to require its ninth-grade biology students to learn intelligent design—a pseudoscientific theory positing evidence of an intelligent creator. In a case that recalled the infamous 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial, eleven parents sued the school board. When the case wound up in federal court before a President George W. Bush–appointed judge, local journalist Lauri Lebo had a front-row seat.
Destined to become required reading for a generation of journalists, scientists, and science teachers, as well as for anyone concerned about the separation of church and state, The Devil in Dover is Lebo’s acclaimed account of religious intolerance, First Amendment violations, and an assault on American science education. Lebo skillfully probes the background of the case, introducing the plaintiffs, the defendants, the lawyers, and a parade of witnesses, along with Judge John E. Jones III, who would eventually condemn the school board’s decision as one of “breathtaking inanity.”
With the antievolution battle having moved to the state level—and the recent passage of state legislation that protects the right of schools to teach alternatives to evolution—Lebo’s work is more necessary than ever.
“Lebo courageously exhibits the highest standards in intellectual honesty and journalistic ethos.” —Daily Kos
“An unapologetic indictment of intelligent design, fundamentalist Christianity, and American journalism’s insistence on objectivity in the face of clear untruths.” —Columbia Journalism Review

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595586582
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 04/12/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 306
Sales rank: 403,690
File size: 318 KB

Read an Excerpt


You Have Much Skill

Why I've heard people say God cannot be alive ... if they'll call on him and just believe

— Loretta Lynn, "God Makes No Mistakes"

I sit across from my father in a Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant. It is near closing time, and the room is empty save for a single waiter hovering next to us with a pitcher. I take a sip of water. The man swoops in and tops off my glass. Sip. Pour. Sip. Pour. I wish he'd go away.

The restaurant sits in a strip mall and is decorated in garish combinations of red and gold. The food here is covered in heavy sweet-and-sour sauces to appeal to local Pennsylvania Dutch palates. Mashed potatoes are served alongside General Tso's chicken. "You like this kind of food?" my father asks me. He finds this place exotic. This both infuriates me and breaks my heart.

I am trying to reassure him. My devoutly fundamentalist Christian father is afraid, I can tell, and he chooses his words carefully. He is unable to come right out and ask the question I know weighs most heavily on his mind: Do I, his oldest daughter, believe in God?

However, my father can't ask that question. What if the answer is no? And so, he protects himself, and me, by tiptoeing around the subject, searching for clues in a discussion of evolutionary theory. Do I believe we came from apes? Then how come monkeys still exist? I say a person can believe in both evolution and God. He nods his head patiently. He doesn't believe me.

I gnaw on a cuticle, though I know my father hates this. "Quit biting your nails," he says. I slump in my chair and sigh, behaving like a petulant child, even though I am forty-one years old. As a small-town reporter at the York Daily Record, I spend much of my time writing stories about municipal millage rates and fundraisers for little girls fighting leukemia. But for the past six weeks, the national spotlight has been shining on my backyard. From a front-row seat in a federal courtroom, I watched elected officials of a school board in nearby Dover, Pennsylvania, try to force religion into science class through a backdoor called intelligent design.

In October 2004, seventeen years after the U. S. Supreme Court struck down the teaching of creation science, Dover's tiny school district adopted its bastard son.

It marked the first time American public school students had been required to learn about intelligent design, the concept that life's complexity demands a guiding hand. Publicly, Dover's school board members spoke of their commitment to sound science education, but privately, behind closed doors, they spoke of leading this nation in a Christian revolution.

And along the way, they bore false witness, and they slandered others.

My father, like many in Dover and across the country, believes that those who oppose the school board are leading an attack on Christian values. In his mind, this was just another ACLU-backed attempt to destroy God.

But what Dean Lebo, my father, refuses to believe, and what I have been unable to make him understand, is that what played out here in our community was faith based on deception. This isn't a story about God versus science, but one of truth versus lies.

The evidence is overwhelming. The mechanics of evolutionary theory — natural selection and genetic mutation — are how we got here. But, for those who believe the Bible is life's literal blue-print, the evidence contradicts faith.

So they deny.

What happened in Dover is a tiny sliver, a broken shard of glass mirroring what plays out across the country. A war of fundamentalist Christian values versus secularism. A battle between evangelical fanaticism and tolerance.

And for those who must live in both worlds, we are caught in between.

As a reporter, I'm not supposed to care, not like this. I'm told I'm supposed to be able to set aside my feelings when I write stories.

But I am weary of hiding these feelings. I am weary of being told that I must treat everything as equal — evidence and faith, fact and fiction. I am weary of pretending this journey has led me nowhere, of the idea that I am merely a sponge that soaks up information and wrings it out again, leaving me dry and unchanged. I am weary of being judged, and accepting this judgment, because I'm supposed to believe it's given out of love and God's mercy.

My father owns a small storefront radio station twenty miles north of Dover that is dedicated to Christian fundamentalist programming. Each day, with unabashed earnestness, local evangelists deliver messages of Satan's lure, the evils of homosexuality, and the importance of converting the Jews.

Not too long ago, I walked into the radio station and listened to the voice of a man on air selling prayer closets for the impending Rapture. I stared at my father sitting behind his desk. Prayer closets? For the Rapture? Even this doesn't make him blink.

I'm not sure if the closets offer assurance that buyers will be taken up before the days of tribulation or if they merely offer protection and salvation after the Rapture takes place. But this much I know: There should be no need for prayer closets in a sane world.

I don't live in such a world. I look at my father and wonder how many other Americans are like him. Why are we so divided?

In Dover, those on the side of the truth weren't the ones marching under a banner of biblical fundamentalism and traditional values. "You can't lie for Jesus," I remind my father. No, the ones on the side of truth were the eleven parents who stood up to their local school board and said teaching their children about religion was their right, and not the job of the educational system.

But my father has closed his eyes to such a worldview. Rather, he wraps himself in his religion, retreating into a cocoon of denial. To him, the only thing that matters is whether I believe, whether I am saved.

So, once again, we play a game that we've been playing for ten years. A game that began when, in a fit of despair one night, overcome by failure and poverty and loneliness, my father dropped to his knees and begged for redemption.

"Are you a Christian?" he asks. And because I know the depth of his fears, I try to reassure him. But in the past year, I have changed. I can no longer deliver my carefully rehearsed lines with the same light touch.

"Yes," I try to say, "I'm a Christian." But this time, my tongue stumbles on the words.

And he knows. I'm the one lying now.

Three days earlier, I stood on the steps of Harrisburg's federal courthouse at the end of the trial of Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District, trying to make sense of this swirl of emotions in my head. From a perch above the chaos, I watched the world clamor for a press conference. I wished my father had been there with me, so he could have witnessed what I saw. Maybe then he could understand.

Out the courthouse's back door, Dover board members slipped away, out of sight of the cameras and away from demanding questions. But on the courthouse's front steps, television crews from Germany and Japan and Italy pressed forward to listen to the parents and their lawyers.

The plaintiffs' lead attorney, Eric Rothschild, stood at the center. Only five feet five inches tall, Rothschild was lost amid the microphones. Unable to get to the center of the crowd, I climbed a wall off to the side and balanced on its ledge. Just below me, at my feet, a little girl with floppy brown curls struggled to climb up on the wall. Rothschild's ten-year-old daughter, Allison, wanted to see her father, but the crowd wasn't interested in little girls. She had been shoved to the back, just as I had been.

I reached down, grabbed Allison's hand, pulled her up in front of me. Stretching up on her tiptoes, she glanced, confused, back and forth between her mother below and her father in the crowd. We were both overwhelmed.

The federal courthouse is a white granite structure with wide-spaced steps leading up to the front doors. Everything was laid out like a stage. To my right, mostly hidden from view, the attorneys were pressed back against the courthouse, wide-eyed, dazed, and a little scared by the crush of attention. Scientists, forgotten by the press for the moment, stood on the steps in front of me, at center stage. Giddy with adrenaline, too little sleep, and far too much caffeine, they were playing with a panda puppet, a glib inside reference to the writings of Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. To my left, Steve Stough, one of the parents who had challenged the school board, watched. His head tilted back and his arms folded across his chest, Stough was beaming. I scribbled in my notebook, "Something beautiful played out here."

Later that day, I climbed into my car thinking about the news story I would write, wondering how I would do justice to what I had witnessed. But as I pulled out of the parking lot, the tears began. I tried to wipe them away with the back of my hand, but they kept coming. By the time I eased my car onto the highway crossing the Susquehanna River, I was sobbing.

I thought about calling my father. I'd fought with him almost every day of the trial. I'd wanted him to condemn, as a Christian, what seemed obvious to me to be deception. But he refused. I'd grow angry and hang up on him. The next day, I'd pick up the phone and try again. How do I explain to my father why this was so moving? How do I tell him we shouldn't be afraid of this? How can I describe what I witnessed?

I wanted him to know the parents' stories: Cyndi Sneath, who testified that she might not have a fancy education, but her eight-year-old son, Griffin, dreams of being an astronaut; of Bryan and Christy Rehm, who teach Bible school and sing in their church choir, but who were called atheists by their neighbors; and of Fred Callahan, a gentle, reserved man dismissed as intolerant. "What am I supposed to tolerate?" he asked. "The small encroachment of my First Amendment rights? Well, I'm not going to."

I wanted my father to understand Steve Harvey, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys and a dutiful Catholic who says we can only try to believe in God. On the morning of that last day of trial, he nervously paced around the block, smoking cigarettes and praying "Our Fathers."

Surely if my father were here, I thought, I could convince him. But not wanting to risk a fight, I didn't reach for the phone.

I thought there would be plenty of time to make my father understand.

Now, sitting in the Chinese restaurant, my father watching me from across the table, I realize that he never will.

My grandmother used to say to me, "Your problem, Lauri, is you're schusslich," using an old Pennsylvania Dutch word meaning scatterbrained. Now, more than ever, my head is bombarded as I try to make sense of everything that happened in the courtroom.

Because I can never remember, I dig into my food before my father can stop me. "Let us pray," he says. I put down my chop-sticks and bow my head. We murmur grace over limp stir-fried green beans and lo mein smothered in duck sauce. I consider confessing that I am not a believer, but the waiter, once again topping off our water glasses, interrupts our conversation. We sit quietly. I keep my head down to avoid my father's frightened eyes, to avoid seeing how much he wants to save me from hell. But he leans forward across the table, catching my downward stare. He asks, "Are you searching for something?"

I guess I am, just not in the way he hopes. I shrug. Searching for a distraction, I open my fortune cookie. It says, "You have much skill in expressing yourself to be effective."


Neighbor Against Neighbor

In God have I put my trust; I will not be afraid what man can do unto me.

— Psalm 56:11

It's so familiar. Has anything changed in eighty years since the Scopes Monkey Trial? Or is what took place in Dover merely the latest incarnation of a battle waged by Christian fundamentalists since William Jennings Bryan prosecuted a young football coach for teaching evolution?

During the trial, when the out-of-town journalists ran out of scientists and lawyers and parents and pastors, they turned to the local reporters and asked, "Why Dover?"

I looked at them and struggled for answers. I usually said something about changing landscapes and suburbanization and new-comers moving into the area. I have never been satisfied with my response. This is because, as I struggled to come up with tidy conclusions, I realized the easy answers just aren't there. In Dover, at least, the pieces don't neatly fit together. "Darwinism"-spouting teachers were preachers' kids; the "atheist" plaintiffs taught Sunday school; the "activist" judge was a Bush-appointed Republican; and the journalists labeled "liars" were willing to go to jail for the truth. These people, along with school board members, administrators, pastors, lawyers, and scientists, uniquely contributed to what played out here.

Maybe, I've thought, it's the dirt. Dover sits at the edge of the Conewago Hills in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Part of York County, Dover is about twenty miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and about twenty miles south of the state capital of Harrisburg. Much of the area remains hidden far back from the main roads. Dover borough, the center of the Dover Area School District, has less than two thousand residents. But the district, which extends into the countryside, has a population of about twenty-four thousand. About one thousand students attend the high school.

A belt of red sandstone cuts through the district's hills, formed two hundred million years ago by grains of crushed quartz that have been washed downstream from once towering mountains. Poor German and English immigrants, unable to afford the more fertile limestone soil to the south, settled here. They pulled iron-rich red stone from heavy clay soil and used it to build houses and churches and schools. Like the soil, life was hard in this farming community.

In one family cemetery plot, under gravestones cut of this same sandstone, a sixteen-year-old mother lies next to her infant. The mother died in 1847, on the day her daughter was born. The baby joined her mother three months later.

Perhaps the years spent trying to build a life from the hard clay soil toughened these people and made them stubborn. Perhaps, in their isolation, they had evolved into a group of people who distrusted outsiders and resisted change.

But even as I talked to the media about Dover's history, I knew there was more to the story.

Some argue that what happened in Dover can only really be understood in the context of 9/11. Small events that occurred in the years following the terrorist attacks hardly seemed significant when considered individually. It's only when those events are strung together that a pattern emerges.

For the terrorist attacks didn't divide us. Not really. It was what came after that changed us. Briefly, for a few weeks, we had been drawn together as a nation united in grief. But what was seeded in 2001 was tended by men hungry for war. They told us that terrorists hate our freedoms. They warned us that you were either for us or against us. They exploited our fear and fueled our distrust of strangers. The world has changed, they said. We must be vigilant against unseen threats. In small towns such as Dover, people paid heed. They watched warily as new residents moved into subdivisions and strip malls sprouted where once there had been cornfields and cow pastures. They wondered where these outsiders were coming from.

Pastors who had once lectured on personal morality began preaching about the culture battles, about the war on religion. Tolerance became a sin, an abandonment of traditional values. Dover's students began to align themselves in terms of their faith — true believers and nonbelievers. They formed cliques based on what churches they attended. At my father's radio station, those witnessing for the Lord spoke of "taking back this nation as a Christian nation."

In the summer of 2002, Larry Reeser, a janitor and the district's head of building and maintenance, invited members of Dover's board of directors to visit their high school. Alan Bonsell, a newly elected member of the school board, came along on the tour.

During his election race, Bonsell campaigned on a platform of frugal spending and taxpayer reform. At the time, a controversial plan to renovate the high school angered many taxpayers. In the weeks leading up to his 2001 election, Bonsell spoke publicly of his commitment to education and public service. He outlined ideas for reining in spending on a project he and others dubbed the Taj Mahal.

But only weeks after taking his oath of office, he revealed another agenda. At a welcome meeting, administrators and members of the school board took turns addressing their ideas for the new year. One board member introduced plans for full-day kindergarten and block scheduling. Another discussed implementing a more consistent discipline policy and perhaps investing in a drug-sniffing dog. Bonsell spoke of creationism and school prayer.

A fundamentalist Christian, Bonsell believes that God shaped man from dust and breathed life into his lungs. In his mid-forties, Bonsell has a goatee and widespaced, feline blue eyes. With his sandy red hair, he looks a little bit like a lion. His wife, Brenda, tells him that he looks like Chuck Norris.


Excerpted from "The Devil in Dover"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Lauri Lebo.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Chapter 1 - You Have Much Skill,
Chapter 2 - Neighbor Against Neighbor,
Chapter 3 - Met on the Battlefield,
Chapter 4 - Myth of Separation,
Chapter 5 - "Never Said It",
Chapter 6 - Kidnapped by Baptists,
Chapter 7 - A Little Constitutional Violation,
Chapter 8 - Where Every House Is a Palace,
Chapter 9 - Forty Days,
Chapter 10 - Seeking Comfort,
Chapter 11 - "Breathtaking Inanity",
Chapter 12 - The Sheep and the Goats,
Copyright Page,

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