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A Trojan Horse for Creationism

Zack Kopplin

By Zack Kopplin

I watched in shock the summer before my sophomore year of high school as my home state, Louisiana, passed a law that opened the door for the teaching of creationism. I was sure Gov. Bobby Jindal, who majored in biology at Brown University, would veto it. He didn’t. Instead, on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Jindal called intelligent design creationism “the very best science.”

The misnamed and misguided Louisiana Science Education Act allows creationism to be sneaked into public school classrooms through “supplemental materials meant to critique” politically controversial theories such as evolution and climate change. Teachers are free from virtually any accountability over what they choose to introduce beyond the standard curriculum.

The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education was charged with implementing the act. Initially the board, which oversees all public schools in the state, drafted rules that said, “materials that teach creationism or intelligent design or that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind shall be prohibited for use in science classes.” Creationists went berserk and managed to get the board to scrap those rules.

The science education act is a crafty law. On its face it appears harmless; it never once mentions creationism or its offshoot, intelligent design. Instead, references to “critical thinking” and “academic freedom” are sprinkled throughout the wording and are used by the law’s defenders.

Everyone agrees that our students should learn how to think critically, but we don’t need a law to do that; teaching critical thinking is the nature of science classes. We don’t need to question evolution and climate change in high school classrooms because they are overwhelmingly supported by scientific evidence. A law is necessary only when one wants to quietly slide creationism and other pseudo-science into the classroom.

Supplemental materials that could be used under the Louisiana law include those that are blatantly creationist and those that raise doubts about evolution and urge students to explore intelligent design.

The science education act and similar pieces of creationism legislation have to be stealthy in order to dodge court rulings. Back in 1987, Louisiana’s first creationism law, the Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science, was thrown out by the Supreme Court in Edwards v. Aguillard. This ruling made it unconstitutional to teach creationism in public schools.

Proponents of creationism were knocked on their heels after that ruling. How were they going to slip religion into public schools? A creationist think tank called the Discovery Institute was formed to find a way, and it invented intelligent design creationism.

In 2004 the Dover, Pa., school district amended its curriculum to say “students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.” One year and a million dollars (for the defendants), later, federal Judge John Jones III ruled in Kitzmiller v. Dover that intelligent design “cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents” and was thus unconstitutional.

Although proponents were no longer able to openly promote creationism in public schools, they still assaulted evolution. Their next tactic consisted of stealth creationism legislation including the Louisiana act. Creationists pretend they simply want to explore a legitimate scientific controversy, but in reality there is nothing to doubt or debate regarding the theory of evolution.

Despite the use of vague language, the agenda behind academic freedom laws is obvious. The Discovery Institute has a “model academic freedom statute on evolution” off which the Louisiana act and other stealth creationism laws are based. The powerful religious right group Louisiana Family Forum is the only notable backer of the science act in the state (its voter guides highlight the law as an issue). Ben Nevers, a Louisiana state senator and sponsor of the act, revealed its true purpose to the public. “They [the Louisiana Family Forum] believe that scientific data related to creationism should be discussed when dealing with Darwin’s theory,” he explained. “… I feel the students should know there are weaknesses and strengths in both [evolution and creationism] scientific arguments.”

Several parishes in Louisiana have attempted to use the act to go beyond supplemental materials and make creationism a core part of their science curriculum. When the director of curriculum for Livingston Parish Public Schools said the law “deals with creationism and the teaching of it in the schools,” a school board member responded:

“Every one of us (board members) sitting up here believes in creationism. We just sit up here and let them teach evolution and not take a stand about creationism. To me, how come we don’t look into this as people who are strong Christians and see what we can do to teach creationism in schools?”

With all of this evidence exposing the purpose of the law, one question remains: Why hasn’t anyone been held accountable for teaching creationism?

The Louisiana act was designed to be hard to challenge. It is written to follow the letter of the law, based on court rulings, but not the spirit.

If students realize that creationist supplemental materials violate their rights and want to try to end their use, they have to appeal to a review committee that is stacked against them. That’s because the student who is making the complaint is allowed to select only one of the panel’s judges, while the publisher of the supplemental materials, the teacher and the Jindal administration’s Department of Education together get to pick the four other judges who decide the matter.

Louisiana’s law is even harder to monitor from outside the school district. There is no standard curriculum or uniform use of the materials, so it is difficult to discern which schools are using which books and to file public records requests. “Textaddons,” a fully debunked supplemental material that has been promoted by the Louisiana Family Forum for science classes in the state, illustrates the creationism proponents’ covert nature. On the forum’s website, the “Textaddons” publisher stipulates that those who want to order a copy must supply their school’s name and their personal residence, noting “I will mail only to a home address.” This kind of secretive marketing makes it tricky for schools to know what their teachers are teaching.

As a senior in high school, I began a campaign to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act. The effort now has the support of 78 Nobel laureate scientists, major science groups and thousands of students, clergy and teachers.

We’ve made slow progress; members of the state’s Senate Education Committee voted down our bill to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act last spring, but we will be back to advocate on the matter again when the legislative session resumes in April.

As we fight to strike down Louisiana’s law, creationism legislation continues to spread. Tennessee passed a copycat law last spring. The Discovery Institute’s model bill is informing creationists across the country. Anti-science legislation has already been rejected in Montana, Indiana, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas and Arizona this year, but we are still facing it in Texas and Missouri.

Creationists in Oklahoma have had one bill defeated, but haven’t given up. A second creationism bill has already been approved by the Education Committee in the state’s House of Representatives and is being considered by the full chamber. Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education pointed out to me that their state has introduced more creationism bills than any other, with 26 measures in the last 13 years (roughly one-sixth of all such legislation proposed nationwide in that period). Just like Louisiana’s legislators, Oklahoma’s lawmakers can’t seem to resist creationism.

Stealth creationism is in vogue. As my mentor Dr. Barbara Forrest titled it after the Kitzmiller trial, this legislation is a trojan horse. Make no mistake about these laws: They are not written to help students think critically. They are crafted to evade court rulings and sneak creationism into public schools.

Zack Kopplin is a science education advocate and winner of the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in Education and the National Center for Science Education’s Friend of Darwin Award.

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