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Truthdigger of the Week: Zack Kopplin

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Posted on Dec 22, 2012
Zack Kopplin

By Alexander Reed Kelly

Eons ago, something crept out of the world’s oceans and made its home on land. All of us living today are descendants of that organism; we owe our existence to its victory in the struggle to adapt to its new, terrestrial surroundings.

Today, slimier creatures are dragging themselves up from the depths of nearby swamps, and they’re attempting to reshape the legislative and educational environments to suit themselves. A mix of religious zealots and political opportunists are waging a campaign to roll back the findings of biology and indoctrinate American students with unsubstantiated dogma. Their lobbies at the state level are powerful, especially in the heartlands of American conservatism, and their efforts have moved some who would otherwise passively oppose them to action.

Zack Kopplin was a sophomore in high school when his state passed the Louisiana Science Education Act in 2008. Masquerading behind the language of “academic freedom,” the law made Louisiana the first state to allow taxpayer-funded public schools to teach creationism and the more insidiously labeled “intelligent design.” Being so obviously inconsistent with the federal policy of separation of church and state, and posing a threat to science students whose education in religious ideology may hinder their access to college and jobs, Kopplin assumed someone from the scientific community would take action. He was “baffled” as the months passed and no one did, and in 2010, he dedicated his senior-year project to building a campaign to repeal the rule.

Kopplin began by contacting Dr. Barbara Forrest, a Southeastern Louisiana University philosopher and a key expert witness in the 2005 case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. The trial resulted in a federal court ruling that found teaching intelligent design in public biology classes to be inconsistent with the First Amendment because the subject is not scientific and “cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.” Forrest and Kopplin enlisted the help of 78 Nobel laureate scientists who publicly endorsed the repeal of the law. The New Orleans City Council, an association of clergy members and various educational and scientific organizations also lent their weight.

Kopplin’s campaign persuaded state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, a Democrat from New Orleans, to sponsor a repeal bill, and in April 2011, she introduced SB 70.

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Within a month, the state Senate heard a debate over the bill. A 5-1 vote to defer action on the legislation effectively killed the group’s effort. Disappointed but not undaunted, the members revived the push the following spring, but lost again. This time, however, defeat came via a much narrower vote of 2-1, as some of the group’s previous opponents abstained. The campaign has promised to continue pressing the legislature until the teaching of creationism in public classrooms is illegal in the state.

The shift in results is encouraging, but state politicians are not yet rushing to Kopplin’s cause in sufficient numbers. The religious lobby, which is aligned with such national groups as Focus on the Family, has the power to elect and defeat political candidates. “Republican politicians are under pressure to vote with the religious right,” Kopplin said in a telephone interview with Truthdig on Friday. “If one of these politicians supports legislation that opposes creationism, they’ll be faced with someone who is further to the right than them in the next primary.”

Louisiana lawmakers and other state officials don’t just have the voting public to fear. Gov. Bobby Jindal has developed a reputation for punishing those who oppose him. According to New Orleans-based nonprofit news provider The Lens, this year Jindal removed Martha Manuel, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Elderly Affairs, less than 24 hours after she publicly questioned one of his decisions. He appears to have pressed the resignation of Cynthia Bridges, a longtime secretary at the Department of Revenue, after she produced a tax report that contradicted his plans. And Jindal engineered the removal of several top officials at Louisiana State University who were “all seen as obstacles to privatizing the university’s hospital system.”

But Louisiana is not without officials willing to endure the pressure of well-funded interest groups and a vindictive governor. On Tuesday, the Orleans Parish School Board voted unanimously to ban the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in its schools, and included a direct rejection of the Texas Board of Education’s 2010 decision to tailor textbooks to conservative tastes. “No history textbook shall be approved which has been adjusted in accordance with the State of Texas revisionist guidelines,” the parish board wrote in its decision, “nor shall any science textbook be approved which presents creationism or intelligent design as science or scientific theories.”

The outcome affects six schools that operate within the parish. Along with the New Orleans City Council’s decision to reject the Louisiana Science Education Act, the city has now fully banned creationism from public classrooms.

Kopplin, now a history student in his second year at Rice University in Houston, has already received two honors for his efforts. He won a National Center for Science Education 2012 Friend of Darwin Award and was granted the 2012 Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in Education. “This is a big victory for reason,” wrote Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer—who was on the jury for the Hefner award—of Tuesday’s result in New Orleans.

When asked why he believed that he, a mere high school student, could bring about such major change at the state and local level, Kopplin said: “I just thought it was right. I didn’t think about the opposition. I’m used to my attempts at things not working. I may lose nine out of 10 times, but eventually we will win this.”

Kopplin has been praised and reviled for his work. Skeptics and scientific groups applaud his endeavors, while some on the other side blame him for Hurricane Katrina. For building such stellar momentum in the direction of reason and progress, and for his commitment to carry on, we honor Zack Kopplin as our Truthdigger of the Week.

Zack Kopplin:

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