FRESNO — A rural high school teaching a religion-based alternative to evolution was sued Tuesday by a group of parents who said the class should be stopped because it violates the U.S. Constitution.

Frazier Mountain High School in Lebec violated the separation of church and state while attempting to legitimize the theory of "intelligent design" by introducing it as philosophy taught by a minister's wife, according to the U.S. District Court suit filed by parents of 13 students.

"The course was designed to advance religious theories on the origins of life, including creationism and its offshoot, intelligent design,'" the suit said. "Because the teacher has no scientific training, students are not provided with any critical analysis of this presentation."

The suit was filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which successfully blocked Dover, Pa., schools last month from using science courses to advance the theory that living things are so complex they must have been designed by a higher being.

Similar battles are being fought in Georgia and Kansas over the controversial subject. Officials at El Tejon Unified School District, which is a defendant in the suit, could not immediately be reached for comment. Superintendent John Wight said last week that the class, "Philosophy of Design," was not being taught as science and was an opportunity for students to debate the issue.

Fifteen students were enrolled in the class in Lebec, a town of 1,285 in the Tehachapi mountains between the agricultural Central Valley and Los Angeles, about 75 miles south.

The five-member school board was divided when it learned about the class last month and discovered three guest lecturers were scheduled to speak in support of intelligent design, but none in favor of evolution.

One pro-evolution speaker listed on the syllabus declined to participate because he disagreed with the class topic, and another — Nobel laureate Francis Crick, who co-discovered the structure of DNA — had died more than a year earlier.

The class is taught by social studies teacher Sharon Lemburg, who is married to an Assembly of God pastor.

An initial course description sent to parents in December said it would examine "evolution as a theory and will discuss the scientific, biological, and Biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin's philosophy is not rock solid."

The El Tejon district's Board of Trustees approved the course 3-2 with a revised syllabus in a Jan. 1 special session, during which board members had to vote up or down on the entire winter session curriculum.

Classes started two days later, with a less scientific and more philosophical class plan that relied solely on videos, not guest speakers.

Still, the Washington, D.C.-based group said that with only one exception the course "relies exclusively on videos that advocate religious perspectives and present religious theories as scientific ones."

"This is clearly intended to introduce religion into a public school," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The lawsuit against the district and its trustees on behalf of 11 parents seeks a temporary restraining order to halt the four-week class in its second week.

The case is Hurst v. Newman, 06-00012.

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Americans United for Separation of Church and State: http://www.au.org/site/PageServer