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PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A new battle over teaching about man's origins in U.S. schools goes to court for the first time next week, 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 classes.
The parents and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) 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 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 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 George W. Bush, who has said schools should teach evolution and intelligent design.
The Dover schools board says it does not teach intelligent design but simply makes students aware of its existence as an alternative to evolution. It denies intelligent design is "religion in disguise" and says it is a scientific theory.
The board is being represented by The Thomas More Law Center, a Michigan-based nonprofit which says it uses litigation to promote "the religious freedom of Christians and time-honored family values."
The center did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The trial begins on Monday in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 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 belief that God created the world -- into public schools under the guise of a theory that does not explicitly mention God. The Supreme Court banned the teaching of creationism in public schools in a 1987 ruling.
"Intelligent design is ultimately a science stopper," said Dr. Eugenie Scott of the National Council for Science Education, a pro-evolution group backing the Dover parents.
"It's a political and religious movement that's trying to insinuate itself into the public schools," she said.
But the American public appears to back the school district.
At least 31 states are taking steps to teach alternatives to evolution. A CBS poll last November found 65 percent of Americans favor teaching creationism as well as evolution while 37 percent want creationism taught instead of evolution.
Fifty-five percent of Americans believe God created humans in their present form, the poll found.
Earlier this month a top Roman Catholic cardinal critical of evolution branded scientific opponents of intelligent design intolerant and said there need not be a conflict between Darwin's and Christian views of life's origins.
Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, a top Church doctrinal expert and close associate of Pope Benedict, said Darwin's theory did not clash with a belief in God so long as scientists did not assert that pure chance accounted for everything from "the Big Bang to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony."
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