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.
To ask that of Ream -- a father of four, a leader in his own church, an award-winning high school science teacher -- came off to many as a cheap shot. But then, it is war in Dover.
A community older than the American Revolution itself, Dover is about 20 miles south of Harrisburg. It boasts a traditional downtown and acres of open space. Every few miles, there's another church. Being Christian is one of those things that almost everyone in town has in common. For many, so is having grown up there and having never left.
In the spring and summer last year, Dover's members began discussing the introduction of a controversial textbook into a high school biology class. The book, "Of Pandas and People," argues evolution through natural selection -- a random process, Darwin's evolution -- simply makes no sense as an explanation for the development of creatures as complex as birds and cats and human beings. Surely, the book's authors argue, some intelligent designer created us. God is never mentioned in the book, but some call it a religious argument anyway.
The school board said "intelligent design" is simply an interesting theory, and it inserted it into the school curriculum. Biology students were to be read a statement: "Darwin's theory is not a fact. Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. 'Of Pandas And People' is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves."
On advice of their lawyers, board members refused to explain why they would risk so much just for that. But the beginning of an explanation may lie in a strange incident that took place years ago, when someone set fire to a piece of artwork at Dover Area High.
Seven years ago, Zachary Straussbaugh, now a design engineer in a sheet metal plant, was a Dover Area High student who painted his way into a small corner of controversy with his senior project -- a mural for the science department, commissioned by the science teacher.
"He wanted the evolution of man done," Straussbaugh said. "I got the information. He had a 'National Geographic' that basically had exactly what I painted on it. And I just went off of that and transplanted onto the two 4-by-8 sheets of plywood, and went from there with the paintings. It took just about half a year, a full semester to get done."
Even as he painted it, Straussbaugh's subject matter met with a certain amount of hostility from some teachers.
"I got a lot of asking me whether or not I believed in it -- which, scientifically, I think I do believe in the evolution of man," he said. "But I think that's a lot of where the controversy, I thought, came from -- when they were asking me how I feel about it."
Straussbaugh finished the mural and graduated, leaving the artwork as a gift to the high school, where it hung, a permanent fixture in a science room, until 2002, when something strange happened.
That year, over summer break, a school custodian took down the mural, carried it outside and set fire to it.
Speaking briefly by telephone, the custodian told ABC News he had a granddaughter at the school and he didn't want her seeing the nudity in the mural. But a former school board member said there was more to it than that.
"It was an overzealous district employee who was offended based on his religion and just couldn't tolerate it," said Barrie Callahan.
He was offended "by the concept of evolution," she said. "That that was not part of his religion, and he did not want it in the school district."
Is the school board taking a stand for a point of view that fights evolution?
Many board members literally wear symbols of their faith on their sleeves -- and their lapels and their neckties.
One of the newer board members, Edward Rowland, shared his personal view that "God created the heavens and the Earth. If you believe the Bible, then that's pretty obvious."
Finally, there's the quote everyone in Dover knows. Buckingham, the retired policeman, declared at one school board meeting: "Nearly 2,000 years ago, someone died on a cross for us. Shouldn't we have the courage to stand up for him?"
Yet the school board is not insisting that the creation story be told in biology class. It is "intelligent design" they want in the curriculum -- the "Of Pandas and People" concept, the theory that says that we are such complex beings that someone must have created us.
One board member, Alan Bonsell, said that's not teaching religion.
"That's not our intent -- never was, never will be," he said. "You can't do it. For one, it's against the law. We've taken an oath to uphold the Constitution just like all the other officials do. And we plan on doing that."
'Something -- Molecules, Amoeba, Whatever'
But some board members touting a theory called "intelligent design" seem to have a difficult time explaining clearly what it is.
When asked what the theory says, Sheila Harkins, the current board president, at first simply handed over an e-mail from a supporter making a case for "intelligent design."
When pressed, she said: "It's exploring the scientific theories of it. Is that what you're saying? ... [The e-mail says] to teach the children the scientific diversities. Is that what you're asking?"
Later, under oath, asked by one of the lawyers suing the board, "Do you have any general understanding what intelligent design is?" she responded, "I have not formed any opinions yet, to give a definition."
When asked what intelligent design means, Buckingham answered, "Back through time, something -- molecules, amoeba, whatever -- evolved into the complexities of life we have now."
Jeff and Carol Brown, two former school board members who quit, said the answers were unclear because Buckingham and his allies are only using "intelligent design" to open the door for biblical creationism.
But the board also has many supporters.
Ray Mummert -- a Dover resident who heads a church in a neighboring town and whose kids were home schooled in the early grades -- feels the board is restoring some needed balance. He thinks the evolution his kids were taught in school was simply and materially wrong.
He said teaching evolution is choosing sides, "if that's all that's being taught."
"In many instances, it's programming these impressionable minds away from the reality of God," he said. "I have a God who was big enough, powerful enough, to speak. And it's what the Bible says. He spoke and the world became into existence as a full, mature world. I feel that the whole [education] system is being dishonest and unwilling to face what is really true," he added.
It's not just Mummert, and it's not just Dover: A poll taken by the Gallup organization last year showed that one out of every three Americans believes the story of man's creation, as told in the Book of Genesis, is the literal truth.
To that one out of three, what really happened is denied by so much in our culture -- such as in every dinosaur movie that depicts a time without humans, in every passing newspaper report that casually describes a universe billions of years old, or in every museum built on the foundation of Darwinism. If you're in that one out of three, it's the world against you, but you've got God on your side.
'In Conflict With the World'
In a town where people could always agree to disagree, there is no compromise on this particular subject. People are fed up. Feelings are bruised.
For instance, Buckingham questioned Ream about child abuse. And Ream brought up Buckingham's public admission of an addiction to painkillers, asking why the board didn't kick him out for that.
Ream said he did not intend his comments as a cheap shot at Buckingham.
"In his perspective, I'm sure he may have seen it that way," Ream said. "But that is not how it was meant.
"My criticism was on the board's part -- for when he requested his resignation so he could get cleaned up, that they didn't accept it," Ream said. "I thought that that was inappropriate for the rest of the board not to give this person the freedom they need to get themselves taken care of."
Mummert believes both sides have been acting badly.
"I've seen unkind statements come from the side ... supporting things that I agree with," he said.
On the other hand, he's felt attacked by his opposition on the issue.
"There's been some very unkind ways that that has been expressed, and accusatory statements," he said. "They've made a lot of accusations that are just generalizations: If you believe in creationism, you're a nonthinking person."
The argument in Dover is of a special kind, where to let the other side win a little is to lose your own cause entirely.
"Unfortunately, I think somebody simply has to win," Ream said. "My side right now is for science education."
Mummert said, "I can't make you believe what I believe," and that he recognizes the rights of all faiths in America. But he does not want to be told -- condescendingly, he feels -- that there are places where his faith does not belong.
"Part of what is so frustrating to me is this dichotomy in the life of all humans, where we want to keep God over here in this little building," he said. "'OK, so you come here and we'll tell you all about God.' Now, you come out to the public education, and we're not going to say anything about God.
"To me, the point behind that is that 'we really don't think there is a God.' OK? 'But if you want to believe in a God, if that's helpful to you ... run off to your little church and you can believe in your God. Just don't bring it back here into the rest of the world, OK?'
"I can't live that way," Mummert said. "And so, I will find myself in conflict. I will find myself in conflict in the world."
ABCNEWS' John Donvan and Elissa Rubin originally reported this story for "Nightline" on Jan. 13, 2005.