Pa. Neighbors Feud Over Darwin, 'Design'

ByABC News
January 15, 2005, 5:00 PM

DOVER, Pa., Jan. 18, 2005 — -- On a night just before Thanksgiving, the Dover School Board was gaveled to an opening. Its members, regular citizens elected by the townspeople, all appeared determined to keep the proceedings dignified and calm, as though they had not brought education in Dover to a state of crisis.

But a month earlier, they had voted on a slight addition to the curriculum, a very brief passage suggesting that evolution may not, after all, explain how we all got here.

Suddenly, Dover was at war with itself. Some school board members resigned in protest. Townspeople would attack each other in ways they never had before -- both those opposing the board and those opposing anyone who opposed the board. The school board's decision got an inordinate amount of media coverage, some of it insulting.

ABC News went to Dover to tell the story, but found that a lot of people were not talking -- not to us and not really to each other. Depending on which side they were on, some people had come to believe that anyone who disagreed with their views was either ignorant or quite possibly evil, and that explaining themselves only gave their enemies more ammunition. Perhaps for that reason, some key players chose not to be interviewed for this report.

If the school board that evening before Thanksgiving gave off a sense of being under siege, it was with good reason. A line of lawyers at the back of the room was the result of 11 citizens suing the school board for teaching religion in school. Their lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union started things rolling with a direct threat to break the school district's back with the legal costs.

"I'll tell you that this case will not be cheap," said Witold Walczak, the ACLU's legal director. "There is still an opportunity now to avoid the payment of attorneys' fees if Dover were to reconsider very quickly. But once we get going, that's going to be off the table."

But on that pre-Thanksgiving night, there was that studied calm. The board was interviewing citizens to fill four vacant seats. Thirteen candidates stepped forward.

But it seemed the board was focused on weeding out potential critics as it asked questions. One member, Bill Buckingham, a retired policeman, read his questions from cards.

"As a board member, I can practically guarantee that you'll be misquoted and otherwise misrepresented in an effort to keep the public inflamed and sell newspapers," Buckingham said. "Do you feel able to rise above the constant attacks on the board and to function as a rational board member?"

Then Brian Ream sat down to be interviewed. He was a critic of the board, much admired by people opposed to what it was doing.

"It is a great disservice and fallacy to teach students that a perfectly valid faith constitutes scientific knowledge," Ream said. "It's time to look at these things with a new and fresh perspective that allows for input from all concerned parties. Thank you."

Buckingham asked a question -- and Ream was the only candidate to whom he posed this one: "Have you ever been accused of abusing a child?"

"I have not," Ream said.