PHILADELPHIA -- A new battle over teaching in US schools about man's origins goes to court next week for the first time, pitting Christian conservatives against educators and scientists in a trial viewed as the biggest test of the issue since the late 1980s.
Eleven parents of students at a Pennsylvania high school are suing over the school district's decision to include ''intelligent design" -- an alternative to evolution that involves a God-like creator -- in the curriculum of ninth-grade biology.
The parents and the American Civil Liberties Union say the policy of the Dover Area School District in south-central Pennsylvania violates the constitutional separation of church and state, which forbids teaching religion in public schools.
They also argue that intelligent design is unscientific and has no place in a science curriculum.
Intelligent design holds that nature is so complex that it must have been the work of an God-like creator rather than the result of natural selection, as argued by Charles Darwin in his 1859 theory of evolution. The school board says that there are ''gaps" in evolution, which it emphasizes is a theory rather than established fact, and that students have a right to consider other views on the origins of life. In their camp is President Bush, who has said schools should teach evolution and intelligent design.
The Dover school board says it does not teach intelligent design but simply makes students aware of its existence as an alternative to evolution. It denies that intelligent design is ''religion in disguise" and says it is a scientific theory.
The board is represented by the Thomas More Law Center, a Michigan-based nonprofit that says it uses litigation to promote ''the religious freedom of Christians and time-honored family values."
The center did not return calls seeking comment. The trial begins Monday in Harrisburg, Pa., and is expected to last about five weeks.
Dr. John West of the Discovery Institute, which sponsors research on intelligent design, said the case displayed the ACLU's ''Orwellian" effort to stifle scientific discourse and objected to the issue being decided in court.
''It's a disturbing prospect that the outcome of this lawsuit could be that the court will try to tell scientists what is legitimate scientific inquiry and what is not," West said. ''That is a flagrant assault on free speech."
Opponents including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Association of Biology Teachers say intelligent design is an attempt by the Christian right to teach creationism. The Supreme Court banned the teaching of creationism in public schools in a 1987 ruling.