Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press
The battle over teaching creationism — aka intelligent design — in public schools is the subject of "Nova" (8 p.m., Ch. 7).

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — It never once occurred to Judge John E. Jones III that he would one day preside over what was, in a way, a retrying of the Scopes monkey trial.

And yet that's pretty much the position the judge for the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania found himself in back in 2005, when he was randomly assigned to the case that tore Dover, Penn., apart. The local school board ordered the high school science teachers to teach creationism — under the guise of intelligent design — and ended up in court.

"I heard about the press conference the day the suit was filed," Jones told TV critics. "And as I was driving home and listening to the recounting of the press conference on the radio, I remember having two thoughts, both of which are hilarious now.

"One is that I wasn't sure that I knew what intelligent design was. The second thought that I had was, 'I wonder who is going to get that case?"'

While emotions ran high in Dover, Jones' job was to listen to both sides present their evidence. The intelligent design forces presented evidence that their views constituted a science; the other side strongly disagreed.

The trial is recounted in tonight's two-hour edition of the PBS science series "Nova" (8 p.m., Ch. 7), which is based on interviews with dozens of people involved on both sides of the dispute.

The 1925 Scopes trial was turned into compelling theater in "Inherit the Wind"; the story of the Dover trial is similarly captivating.

This is not a battle between the religious and the scientific. Many of those who opposed the teaching of creationism in public schools are themselves churchgoing believers who also believed that religion should not be taught in the public schools.

"It was a very surreal experience that got odder," Jones said. "As a high-profile trial, I don't know that they come any larger. It was very unnerving as the trial started, but you settle down, and you do what you have to do.

"But no, I could never have imagined, when I got on the federal court, that I would have a case like this."

It's no secret how the case turned out or what happened in Dover. Jones not only ruled against the school board and intelligent design, but did so in a strongly worded opinion that also ordered the board to pay $1 million in legal fees and damages.

Before he had even issued his opinion, however, eight of the nine Dover School Board members were voted out of office, replaced by new members who campaigned against teaching creationism in the public schools.

"I struck down a particular act by a renegade school board that patently, clearly violated the establishment clause within the First Amendment to the Constitution," Jones said. "This was a group with a clear religious motivation that sought under cover of this concept known as intelligent design to get into public schools. In deciding that it wasn't science, I found that essential to the analysis."

And if you're thinking this is a liberal, "activist" judge, think again. As a matter of fact, the backers of intelligent design "rejoiced" when Jones was assigned to the case, said Ken Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University who testified on behalf of the science teachers.

"They said, 'Great! We've got a conservative Republican appointed by George W. Bush. This is the judge we need. This is going to be a great trial,"' Miller said. "That was their view of the judge's preconceptions."

"You've got to be careful what you wish for," Jones said with a laugh.

As far as the judge is concerned, this "Nova" should serve as a cautionary tale to all Americans.

"I think there's a lesson here for communities and how they elect their school board members," Jones said. "I think that probably many in Dover would concede that they were asleep at the switch when they elected these folks. And that might be, in addition to the science facet, one of the enduring lessons in this."