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A US court has delivered a setback to religious conservatives hoping to get the theory of intelligent design onto the school curriculum.

A district judge has banned the teaching of intelligent design at schools overseen by the Dover Area School Board in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, ruling it advances "a particular version of Christianity" and is unconstitutional because it violates the notion of the separation of church and state.

Judge John Jones ruled intelligent design was "nothing less than the progeny of creationism," the belief that the world was created by God as outlined in the Book of Genesis.

In a 139-page ruling, Jones also lambasted the Dover school board for its "breathtaking inanity" in using intelligent design as a pretext for its real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom. Transcripts from the case can be viewed here.

Intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and living things are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process such as natural selection.

Intelligent design is popular among the US religious right and endorsed by President George W Bush who last summer said US children should be taught both intelligent design and evolution "so people can understand what the debate is about."

As such, schools are on the front line. In Kansas, state education officials last month adopted new classroom science standards that cast doubt on evolution and redefine science to allow for non-natural explanations, such as a creator.

A federal appeals court in Georgia, meanwhile, has heard arguments over whether an Atlanta school district had the right to put stickers on biology textbooks that describe evolution as a theory, not fact. A federal judge in January had ordered the stickers to be removed.

Dover had added language about intelligent design to its biology curriculum. In a four-paragraph statement, it claimed evolution was not a fact and there were gaps in the theory that could not be explained. Students were referred to a book called Of Pandas and People - universally panned by Amazon.com reviewers - to "gain and understanding of what intelligent design actually involves."

The board's decision was challenged by a group of 11 parents, who subsequently brought a suit against the board.

The ruling is unlikely to be appealed as recent elections changed the composition of the Dover school board, which is now opposed to intelligent design.®

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