After years of sounding the alarm to politicians and the media, yesterday's official confirmation that teachers in at least one Louisiana school district use the Book of Genesis in public school science classrooms affirms what activist Zack Kopplin had been warning about since he was a junior in high school: Bobby Jindal's "science education" law had nothing to do with better understanding science -- and everything to do with promoting evangelical Christianity.
As a teenager, Zack personally garnered endorsements for the "science education" law's repeal from 78 Nobel laureates, scouring the Internet to find their names and e-mail addresses and writing them an earnest letter. It was, at first, just a part of his senior project. But other national and international science organizations paid attention, and so too did the media. He spent nearly an hour talking with Bill Moyers and, a few months later, was the special guest panelist on Real Time with Bill Maher.
By the time he enrolled in college at Rice University, Kopplin was regularly speaking at campuses and conferences all over the country. (For the purposes of full disclose, one of the co-writers of this article, Lamar White, is a close friend of Zack Kopplin and has been publicly involved in his campaign since it first launched).
Today, Kopplin, who turns 22 in July, is a regular science writer for the online publication Slate, and even though the repeal bill has been brought up and swiftly defeated for five consecutive years, he is not giving up. If anything, in recent months, he has ramped up his efforts, requesting and receiving hundreds of dollars worth of public records from school districts all over the state. He knew what he was looking for.
In May, George Dvorsky of i09 published an article titled "Why Zack Kopplin Is Losing Ground In The War Against Creationism." After five consecutive defeats in which the bill never even earned enough votes to make it out of the State Senate Education Committee, it was easy to understand the sense of defeatism. All five of those hearings showcased just how jaw-droppingly ignorant and scientifically illiterate some Louisiana legislators truly are.
One year, State Senator Mike Walsworth asked a high school teacher who had been explaining microevolution among E. coli bacteria, "They evolve into a person?" The video of this exchange went viral. The next year, State Senator Elbert Guillory, who is currently running for Louisiana Lieutenant Governor, described a bizarre encounter he had with a semi-clothed witch doctor, complete with vivid details about the man throwing bones and brushing up dirt.
That man, Senator Guillory claimed, was able to give him a diagnosis of a health condition, which was later verified by a medical doctor in the United States. This experience, he argued, proves to him the necessity of teaching pseudoscience in the public school science classroom. The Washington Post picked up on that story. And this year, Senator Guillory struck again, claiming that scientists once burned heretics at the stake.
Each year, Kopplin -- whose repeal efforts have been spearheaded in the legislature by State Senator Karen Carter Peterson -- has methodically and patiently made his case that the creationism law, officially known as the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), was merely a cynical and clever attempt to introduce religious beliefs as scientific theory, in contravention of the Establishment Clause.
It shouldn't be difficult to connect the dots. Both of the legislators who introduced the bill acknowledged they were acting at the behest of a radical religious right organization, the Louisiana Family Forum, in order to introduce creationism and its fraternal twin, intelligent design, in public schools, as a way of undermining the teaching of evolution. Governor Bobby Jindal himself, in response to a question about the law, told NBC News, "I’ve got no problem if a school board, a local school board, says we want to teach our kids about creationism, that some people have these beliefs as well. Let's teach them [the students] about intelligent design."
Since its passage seven years ago and during the last five repeal hearings, defenders of the LSEA, at least those savvy enough to understand that E. coli does not, in fact, evolve into people, have framed the issue around the amorphous concept of critical thinking. It is a rhetorical gimmick, magic language employed in order to avoid blatantly conflicting with a substantial body of Supreme Court precedent.
The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based "think tank" focused on promoting intelligent design, helped write the Louisiana statute, and in the years since its passage, they have forcefully defended the law, even sending employees to testify to the Louisiana State Senate Education Committee. They have also relentlessly criticized Kopplin and his campaign, arguing that the LSEA has nothing to do with creationism or intelligent design.
One of its employees, David Klinghoffer, has been shamelessly personal with his attacks. On the pages of the Discovery Institute's news website, Klinghoffer recently published a bizarre open letter to Zack Kopplin's mother and father, coming across more like a patronizing clod than the sagacious and sophisticated adult he fashions himself as.
"I am giving Zack the benefit of the doubt in assuming that, being young and naïve, he still sincerely does not understand the difference between creationism, on one hand, and on the other hand, legitimate, mainstream criticisms of Darwinian biology," Klinghoffer wrote. "It's the latter only that LSEA gives teachers the freedom to share with students, along with evidence that supports conventional evolutionary theory."
For Klinghoffer and his colleagues at the Discovery Institute, the Louisiana statute is crystal clear -- it cannot be used to promote religion, only to allow public school science teachers the ability to facilitate an "open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."
To do so, the law allows teachers the ability to introduce supplementary materials. That all may sound perfectly reasonable, until you consider that "the origins of life" and "human cloning" aren't scientific theories. This should probably cause concern: The statute misdefines the very thing it seeks to regulate. And that's because this law, the first of its kind passed in the nation, is not and was never about science education.
It is a law written and promoted by a narrow sect of Christian conservatives, new earth creationists, folks who believe that the universe is only 6,000 years old, that Noah saved every species on the planet by building a floating zoo, and that the apocalypse may occur within their lifetimes. To be sure, the statute does include a section recapitulating federal law about prohibiting the promotion of religion, but despite the Discovery Institute's best propaganda, that particular section is meaningless.
In the early 1980s, Louisiana enacted the Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act, which required that any public school teaching evolution must also teach creationism. That law contained the same exact prohibition against promoting religion. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Edwards v. Aguillard, saw through the charade and invalidated the law -- there's no such thing as "creation-science;" it's just creationism. In fact, in later opinions, courts have said the same thing about "intelligent design" -- it too is the same thing as creationism.
During recent Senate committee hearings on the repeal legislation, State Senator Conrad Appell, a Republican from suburban New Orleans and the Chairman, has repeatedly asked variations of the same questions, "If this law is so bad, why hasn't anyone filed a complaint against it? Where is it actually being used the way its opponents suggests?"
They are clever questions. Committee meetings are often stacked full of homeschool kids, kids who aren't even affected by the law, singing its praises, but thus far, opponents have struggled to find concrete proof of the law being implemented as truly intended, much to the relief of the Discovery Institute.
This does not mean the law hasn't been broken -- it merely means that no one has ever sued over it, which, is perhaps not yet practicable. In 2010, the Louisiana State Department of Education required that all school districts include a section on complying with the LSEA in their annual pupil progression plans, but once the law became the subject of national and international scrutiny, they quietly rescinded that requirement.
This year, though, things changed. Kopplin became acquainted with Scott Lane, a father of two in Sabine Parish whose son C.C., a Buddhist his parents adopted, had been ridiculed and penalized in the classroom and on tests because of his religious beliefs. The harassment took a toll. He was transferred to nearby Many High School.
The Lanes sued the school district over the previous treatment of their kids, and as a result, the federal judge, Elizabeth Foote, an Obama appointee, issued an injunction against the school and will force them to pay for the Lanes's transportation costs to and from the new school. But if yesterday's report of the state sanctioning the study of Genesis in a biology classroom proves true, families like the Lanes might not have the legal recourse to file such lawsuits in the future.