The Relentless Christian Crusade to Prevent Kids from Learning Science

The Right Wing

The debate that took place on the floor of the Tennessee House of Representatives in April could not exactly be described as a feast for the intellect.

Legislators were deliberating a bill that would open the door to creationism in public schools by requiring schools to “find effective ways” to teach about three “controversial” ideas: evolution, global warming and human cloning.

The discussion quickly degenerated into name-calling when one bill supporter called opponents “intellectual bullies,” reported the Knoxville News Sentinel.

One lawmaker even tried to press Albert Einstein into service. Rep. Frank Niceley, a Republican from Strawberry Plains, asserted that Einstein once said, “A little knowledge would turn your head to atheism, while a broader knowledge would turn your head to Christianity.”

Niceley should have checked his facts: Einstein, who was raised Jewish and usually referred to himself as an agnostic, never said that. Something similar was once uttered by English philosopher Francis Bacon – 400 years ago.

At the end of the day, the debate was mainly for show because the conclusion was foregone. The measure passed easily 70-23 and was sent to the state Senate, where its prospects remain uncertain. It reached the upper house just as the session was winding down, and even its sponsor admitted it was unlikely to pass this year.

The incident, however, was telling. It’s yet another example of how Religious Right strategies to introduce fundamentalist Christianity into public school science classes have (ironically) evolved over the years. Measures like the Tennessee bill have popped up in other states during this legislative season, showing an increasing sophistication on the part of activists who are determined to revise biology instruction to conform to religious dogma.

In decades past, state legislators passed laws flatly barring the teaching of evolution or requiring “balanced treatment” between creationism and evolution. Those efforts were struck down by the courts.

Undaunted, Religious Right activists returned with a host of new ideas and presented them to friendly lawmakers. They advocated teaching the “weaknesses” of evolution, asserted that public school teachers had a free-speech right to attack evolution in class and even advocating pasting anti-evolution disclaimers in science books.

When courts rejected those gambits as well, the creationists retrenched and relabeled. Creationism became “intelligent design” (ID), a concept that its proponents swore was not necessarily religious (although they were unclear on who the designer could be other than God).

That gambit floundered in court as well, bringing us to the newest incarnation of creationism: Teach the controversy.

Under this approach, evolution is falsely branded a “controversial” idea that is losing support even in the scientific community. Thus, students must be taught to engage in “critical thinking” about its flaws, and, for good measure, controversies over global warming and human cloning will be discussed as well.

Bills promoting this idea surfaced in a number of states this year. According to the website, legislatures in Florida, Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, Oklahoma and New Mexico have considered anti-evolution measures. Most of the proposals died, but the persistence of the issue says a lot about the state of science education.

“This is a recent trend,” remarked Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a group in Oakland, Calif., that supports evolution instruction in public schools. “Part of the reason for including global warming and human cloning seems to be to deflect the criticism that evolution is being singled out for special treatment, and another part of the reason seems to be to appeal to a wider base of science denialists.”

Certain states have been flashpoints for the battle. Tennessee, site of the famous “Scopes monkey trial” in 1925, is one of them. Another is Louisiana.

The Pelican State has a long, unfortunate record of trying to undermine standard science education. Louisiana was one of the originators of the infamous “balanced treatment” law that reached the Supreme Court in 1987’s Edwards v. Aguillard. Under the statute, public schools had to spend equal amounts of time teaching about evolution and “creation science.”

The high court struck down the scheme, but supporters of creationism refused to give up. The issue has been a persistent problem in some Louisiana parishes (counties), and the state legislature continues to express sympathy for anti-evolution laws.

In 2008, the legislature passed a measure called the Louisiana Science Education Act, which was promptly signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal. Critics said the measure was mis-named. Its aim was anything but promoting science.

Under the law, teachers may use “supplemental materials” in the classroom when studying “evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” Critics charged that the main purpose of the measure is to allow teachers to introduce creationist materials into science classes.

“The Louisiana Science Education Act invites teachers and school boards to violate the Constitution,” said Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University and a leading critic of creationism. “Already, school board members in two parishes, Livingston and Tangipahoa, have indicated their interest in teaching creationism, explicitly invoking this law as justification.”

Forrest, who serves on Americans United’s Board of Trustees and co-authored the 2004 book Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, added, “Louisiana lost a major national science convention because of this law when the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology protested by going to Utah instead of New Orleans. Neither Louisiana teachers nor scientists asked for this law. The act is a testament to the power of the Religious Right over Louisiana public policy under the Jindal administration.”

The law, however, has sparked a backlash. Zack Kopplin, a senior at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, was embarrassed by his state’s new policy – and he decided to do something about it.

Kopplin began rounding up professional science groups to denounce the measure. He also lobbied Louisiana Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans) to introduce legislation – SB 70 – repealing the law.

“I’ve always wanted to take this law on, since it was passed three years ago,” Kopplin told Church & State. “When it first passed, friends and family from around the country read about it in The New York Times, and it was really embarrassing. This law doesn’t just affect my reputation with friends and family though. Louisiana has an anti-science reputation that will make it harder for Louisiana students to get the cutting-edge jobs in science that they want.”

In late April, Kopplin led a rally in favor of repeal at the state capitol.

Thanks to Kopplin’s work, several national science groups have endorsed the repeal effort. They include the American Institute for Biological Sciences, the American Society for Cell Biology, the Society for the Study of Evolution, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. (Kopplin also maintains a citizens’ petition calling for repeal of the law.)

In addition, Kopplin lobbied the New Orleans City Council to support repeal of the law. In May, the council voted unanimously in favor of supporting repeal. A group of religious leaders called the Clergy Letter Project has also endorsed the call. (He also lined up 43 Nobel laureates to endorse repeal.)

“I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of support I am getting,” Kopplin said. “Thousands of people signed the online petitions, and hundreds have signed hand-written petitions. I meet new people who support the effort every day.”

On May 26, the Senate Education Committee voted 5-1 to defer the bill, effectively killing it for now. But Kopplin, who will begin studying history and economics at Rice University in the fall, said he is confident that his fellow students at Magnet High will keep up the fight.

“Creationism is not science, and teaching it in science classes puts Louisiana and America’s kids at a disadvantage to kids around the world,” Kopplin asserted. “A lot of noise was recently made about China catching up to the U.S. in scientific output. That will continue if we have an anti-science reputation. We will drive away scientists and science investment. We need these scientists to keep us at the forefront of scientific discovery.”

Americans United’s Legislative Department often speaks out against creationist bills in state legislatures. AU sent letters to legislators in Tennessee and in Oklahoma where Religious Right proposals looked especially strong in 2012, warning about the constitutional flaws of this approach.

Legislators in Oklahoma seem to have taken AU’s advice to heart. Earlier this year, the House Education Committee voted 9-7 against a bill, sponsored by Religious Right champion Sally Kern, that would have opened the door to “intelligent design” and other creationist concepts in school science classes. (Kern insisted that her so-called “Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act” had nothing to do with creationism.)

In addition to AU’s legislative work, AU’s Legal Department warns local schools not to promote creationism, pointing out that it violates church-state separation. In a recent incident, AU attorneys contacted a public school in Texas after a high school biology teacher showed her class a DVD promoting intelligent design.

These days, AU must keep an eye on the U.S. Congress as well. House Speaker John Boehner has pushed for introducing creationism into public school science classes in the past. In 2005, before he was speaker, Boehner advocated adding creationist ideas to the conference report of the No Child Left Behind Act, the nation’s leading education bill.

Pro-science groups like the NCSE, the National Association of Biology Teachers and others also work to educate legislators and the public about the dangers such legislation poses to science education and America’s ability to remain a world leader in technical fields.

A study released earlier this year by the National Center for Education Statistics bears this out. The report ranked American students alongside several other developed nations in the fields of math and science. U.S. scores were stagnant. Chinese students ranked number one, followed by students in South Korea, Finland, Hong Kong and Singapore. American students ranked 15th.

“The results released today show that our nation’s students aren’t learning at a rate that will maintain America’s role as an international leader in the sciences,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan remarked.

When it comes to biology, human evolution continues to be slighted in many state standards. Earlier this year, Ursula Goodenough, a biologist at Washington University in St. Louis, started surveying science standards for the Fordham Foundation. After examining 35 states, Goodenough reported that while most standards included evolutionary concepts, only one state, Florida, specifically mentioned human evolution.

A recent study by two professors at Pennsylvania State University found that only 28 percent of high school biology teachers consistently discuss evolution in class. Sixty percent said they are wary of the topic and fear sparking controversy and 13 percent admitted that they openly promote creationism/ID in class.

The researchers, Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer (who are both professors of political science), said “the cautious 60 percent” are a huge problem because they “fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts and legitimize creationist arguments.”

As a result, the duo suggested in Science magazine, teachers who avoid the topic altogether “may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists.”

Biology teachers may have cause to be nervous. Polling data has consistently shown soft support for evolution in the United States. A Gallup poll issued late in 2010 found that 38 percent of Americans backed what might be called “theistic evolution” – the idea that humans developed over millions of years from less advanced forms with guidance from God. An additional 16 percent said they believe in development over time with no input from God. The remaining 40 percent backed creationism and said they believe “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”

A Reuters poll issued earlier this year found only a handful of countries with higher rates of belief in creationism, among them Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Indonesia, South Africa and Brazil.

In some of those countries, belief in creationism can perhaps be explained by limited educational opportunities. In the United States, where educational opportunities abound, much of the confusion in the public mind can be explained by an aggressive, well-funded campaign against evolution by fundamentalist Christian ministries.

Parents who work to suppress evolutionary instruction in public schools are doing their children no favors. With the exception of a few fundamentalist Christian institutions, most public and private universities in America teach evolution upfront and without apology. Students who don’t encounter it in high school won’t be prepared.

For the overwhelming majority of scientists, this issue is no longer controversial. Even as Oklahoma legislators were debating a back-door creationism bill, the University of Oklahoma played host to “Evolution 2011,” an international conference that took place in Norman June 17-21.

A press release described the event as “the premier annual international conference of evolutionary biologists on the planet. Talks and plenary sessions present cutting-edge research on topics ranging from molecular evolution to behavioral ecology, comparative genomics to computational analysis of biological data.”

NCSE’s Branch recommends that parents work with science teachers so they know they needn’t bow to fundamentalist pressure campaigns.

“Teachers need to know that they have support for teaching evolution forthrightly – that the parents of their students, and their communities in general, want science to be taught in a scientifically accurate and pedagogically appropriate way, without any compromises to mollify the objections of those who reject evolution on religious grounds,” Branch said.

“And our support can go beyond mere words of encouragement,” he added. “We can, for example, donate material on evolution and related topics to science classrooms and school libraries, and help arrange field trips to science centers and natural history museums.”

Attacking evolution means big money for the Religious Right. In Kentucky, a creationist ministry called Answers in Genesis opened the Creation Museum in 2007 at a cost of $25 million. Three years later, it had logged its one millionth visitor.

The museum has been so successful that Answers in Genesis and some allied groups have proposed opening a theme park based on the story of Noah’s Ark in Williamstown, Ky. Despite the ministry’s dubious science – the group believes dinosaurs were carried on the ark and even says unicorns once existed – Gov. Steve Beshear has responded enthusiastically, promising a package of state tax breaks to bring the park to reality. In May, officials with Kentucky’s Tourism Cabinet voted to award more than $40 million in tax incentives to the “ark park” under Kentucky’s Tourism Development Act.

Americans United spoke out against the deal, warning Kentucky officials that their state risks getting a reputation for being hostile to science. In addition, AU attorneys have filed a Freedom of Information Act request, asking to see copies of documents related to the arrangement. They are investigating whether the aid package might violate the Kentucky Constitution.

With an annual income of about $20 million, the Hebron, Ky.-based Answers in Genesis is the nation’s largest fundamentalist ministry promoting “young Earth” creationism. A financial disclosure form it filed with the Internal Revenue Service speaks bluntly about its goals: “We proclaim the absolute truth and authority of the Bible with boldness. We relate the relevance of a literal Genesis to the church and the world today with creativity. We obey God’s call to deliver the message of the Gospel, individually and collectively.”

A smaller outfit, the Dallas-based Institute for Creation Research (budget: $5.4 million), lists its objectives as “Christian apologetics, creation science education and research.” In Glendora, Calif., a ministry called Reasons to Believe pulls in $3.1 million per year and says it exists to “explore the reasonable and scientifically sound basis on which the historic Christian faith stands.” Numerous smaller outfits dot the landscape.

Not all creationist groups insist that Earth is young. Reasons to Believe accepts an ancient Earth, and in Seattle, the Discovery Institute – buttressed by an annual budget of $4.5 million – has become the leading proponent of intelligent design.

What these groups share is a belief – either stated upfront or implied – that evolution and religion are irreconcilable; one must choose one or the other. But many religious leaders say that’s a false choice.

The National Center for Science Education maintains a list of religious groups that speak in favor of evolution. It includes Episcopalian, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, United Methodist, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ bodies, in addition to organizations affiliated with Jewish and Unitarian communities.

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said Religious Right organizations are working to stir conflict between religion and science as part of a larger plan to inject their literalist interpretation of the Bible into public schools.

“The Religious Right aims to replace science instruction in public classrooms with fundamentalist Sunday School lessons,” said Lynn, himself an ordained United Church of Christ minister. “This movement seeks to do great damage to two of its biggest obstacles: church-state separation and modern science.”

Concluded Lynn, “Religious liberty and good science education are at stake. That’s why we must speak out.”

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