WASHINGTON -- President Bush invigorated proponents of teaching alternatives to evolution in public schools with remarks that schoolchildren should be taught about ''intelligent design," a view of creation that challenges established scientific thinking and promotes the idea that an unseen force is behind the development of humanity.
Although he said that curriculum decisions should be made by school districts rather than the federal government, Bush said in a group interview at the White House on Monday that he believes that intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution as competing theories.
''Both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about," he said, according to an official transcript of the session. Bush added, ''Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. . . . You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."
These comments drew sharp criticism yesterday from liberals, who said there is no scientific evidence to support the intelligent design theory and no educational basis for teaching it.
The White House said yesterday that Bush's comments were in keeping with positions dating to his Texas governorship, but aides say they could not recall him addressing the issue while president. His remarks heartened conservatives who have been asking school boards and legislatures nationwide to teach students that there are gaps in evolutionary theory.
John West of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank supporting intelligent design, issued a written statement welcoming Bush's remarks. ''President Bush is to be commended for defending free speech on evolution and supporting the right of students to hear about different scientific views about evolution," he said.
Opponents of intelligent design, which a Kansas professor once derided as ''creationism in a cheap tuxedo," say there is no legitimate debate. They see the case increasingly as a political battle that threatens to weaken science teaching in a nation whose students already are falling behind.
''It is, of course, further indication that a fundamentalist right has really taken over much of the Republican Party," said Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts. Noting Bush's own Ivy League education, Frank said, ''People might cite George Bush as proof that you can be totally impervious to the effects of Harvard and Yale education."
Bush's comments were ''irresponsible," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He said he worries that Bush's comments could be followed by a directive to the Justice Department to support legal efforts to change curricula.
Bush gave no sign that he intended to wade that far into the debate. The issue came up only when a reporter from the Knight Ridder News Service asked him about it; participants said the president did not seem eager to be asked. ''Very interesting question," he told the reporter playfully.
At a morning briefing yesterday, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush was simply restating longstanding views. ''He has said that going back to his days as governor," McClellan said. ''I think he also said in those remarks that local school districts should make the decisions about their curriculum."
In comments published last year in Science magazine, Bush said that the federal government should not tell states or school boards what to teach, but that ''scientific critiques of any theory should be a normal part of the science curriculum."
The president's latest remarks came less than two months after Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, archbishop of Vienna and an influential Roman Catholic theologian, said evolution as ''an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection" is not true.
''Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science," Schonborn wrote in the New York Times. He said he wanted to correct the idea that neo-Darwinism is compatible with Christian faith.
Much of the scientific establishment contends that intelligent design is not a tested scientific theory, but a cleverly marketed effort to introduce religious, especially Christian, thinking to students. Opponents say church groups and other interest groups are pursuing political channels instead of first building support through traditional scientific review.
Bruce Alberts, former president of the National Academy of Sciences, warned this year in a ''Dear Colleagues" letter of ''increasingly strident attempts to limit the teaching of evolution."
The most prominent debate is underway in Kansas, where the state board of education is expected to require the teaching of doubts about evolution to public high school students. A challenge to the teaching of intelligent design is scheduled for trial in Dover, Pa., while a federal court in Georgia said textbook stickers questioning evolution were unconstitutional.