With a vote last month, the school board in the rural south-central Pennsylvania community is believed to have become the first in the nation to mandate the teaching of "intelligent design," which holds that the universe is so complex that it must have been created by an unspecified higher power.
Critics call the change in the ninth-grade biology curriculum a veiled attempt to require public schoolchildren to learn creationism, a biblical-based view that credits the origin of species to God. Schools typically teach evolution, the theory that Earth is billions of years old and that its life forms developed over millions of years.
The state American Civil Liberties Union chapter is reviewing the Dover Area School District case. Its Georgia counterpart, meanwhile, is fighting a suburban Atlanta district's decision to include a warning sticker in biology textbooks that says evolution is "a theory, not a fact."
"What Dover has done goes much further than what's happened in Georgia," said Witold Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU. "As far as we can tell, Dover is the first school district that has actually mandated intelligent design."
The Dover schools enroll about 2,800 students. The district encompasses the small, rural community of Dover borough, about 20 miles south of Harrisburg, and a patchwork of farmland and newer suburban developments in several surrounding townships.
School board member William Buckingham, who heads the board's curriculum committee, spearheaded the revision.
"I think it's a downright fraud to perpetrate on the students of this district, to portray one theory over and over," said Buckingham. "What we wanted was a balanced presentation."
Buckingham wanted the board to adopt an intelligent-design textbook, "Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins," as a supplement to the traditional biology book, but no vote was ever taken. A few weeks before the new science curriculum was approved, 50 copies were anonymously donated to the high school.
Although Buckingham describes himself as a born-again Christian and believes in creationism, "This is not an attempt to impose my views on anyone else," he said.
Two of the dissenting board members, Carol Brown and her husband, Jeff, were so upset that they resigned after the 6-3 vote on Oct. 18.
"We have a vocal group within the community who feel very strongly in an evangelical Christian way that there is no separation of church and state," Carol Brown said. "Our responsibility to is to represent the viewpoints of all members of the community."
Statewide science-curriculum standards approved by Pennsylvania's state Education Board merely ask students to "analyze data ... that are relevant to the theory of evolution."
When the standards were revised three years ago, the board considered language that would have required students to consider evidence that did not support evolution, but the board dropped the idea after critics alleged it would have led to the widespread teaching of creationism in public schools.
Critics of intelligent design contend it is creationism repackaged in more secular-sounding language.
"Creationism in a cheap tuxedo," said Nicholas Matzke, project information specialist for the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif., which advocates for the teaching of evolution.
Even the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which supports scientists studying intelligent-design theory, opposes mandating it in schools because it is a relatively new concept, said John West, associate director of the institute's Center for Science and Culture.
"We're completely against anyone who says you should downgrade or limit the teaching of evolution," West said.
Dover biology teacher Jennifer Miller said the curriculum changes have left her uncertain about how to approach her evolution lesson.
"If you put the words 'intelligent design' into my curriculum, then I have to teach it," said Miller, a 12-year veteran. "I'm not sure what that means as to how in-depth we have to go. ... I'm looking for more direction from the school board."
Neither Assistant Superintendent Michael Baksa, who oversees the district's curriculum, nor Superintendent Richard Nilsen responded to telephone calls and e-mail messages.
Jonathan Tome, whose three sons attend Dover schools, applauded the measure.
"You can't be hypocritical with these kids, teaching them one thing but not another," said Tome, 43.
But sophomore Courtney Lawton said she didn't have a problem learning only about evolution in biology class last year.
"I just think they should keep it the way it is, and they shouldn't add anything about a higher power," said Lawton, 15. "People who believe differently, they might feel like they're being segregated."