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Louisiana Enacts a New Creationist Law
Anti-evolution legislation flourished this year, inspired by a creationist movie featuring Ben Stein. While the bills failed in most states, the effort in Louisiana succeeded based on years of effort by local creationists. They had been laying the groundwork for a major legislative assault since Edwards v Aguillard overturned the state's Balanced Treatment Act in 1987. They regrouped, organized, and enacted a bill that invites, but does not force, teachers and school districts to breach the constitutional separation of church and state.
Senate Bill 561, styled the "Louisiana Academic Freedom Act," was prefiled in the Louisiana Senate by state senator Ben Nevers (D–Bogalusa) on March 21, 2008, and assigned to the Senate Education Committee, of which Nevers is the chair. In name, the bill was similar to the so-called academic freedom bills then pending in Florida and other states. Those bills in turn are based on a string of similar bills in Alabama as well as on a model bill that the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, the institutional home of "intelligent design" creationism, recently began to promote in conjunction with the producers of Ben Stein's Expelled (to be discussed extensively in a future issue of RNCSE). But in its content, Louisiana's SB 561 was also modeled on a controversial policy adopted by a local school board two years ago.
Backed by the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF) — a religious right group with a long history of promoting creationism and attacking evolution education in the state — the Ouachita Parish School Board's policy was laced with creationist language. The policy, passed in 2006, declares that students should understand "the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught";"biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning" are the only topics specifically mentioned (see RNCSE 2006 Nov/Dec 26 : 8–11).
LFF has a long history of promoting creationism and attacking evolution education in the state; its website "promotes 'Teaching the Controversy' when it comes to matters such as biologicial [sic] evolution". It recommends a variety of young-earth and "intelligent design" websites, including the Institute for Creation Research, the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, and Kent Hovind's Creation Science Evangelism, on its own website (http://www.lafamilyforum.org/site100-01/1001014/docs/4-1originssciencewebsites.pdf). Of particular concern, LFF distributes "textbook addenda" which they hope teachers and students will use to correct purported errors in standard scientific textbooks. The "addenda" cite the flood geology of young earth creationist Jonathan Woodmorappe and even the writings of geocentrist Malcolm Bowden. The LFF was also the object of an aborted earmark by Senator David Vitter (RLouisiana) for studying various suggesting "improvements" in science education in Louisiana (see RNCSE 2007 Sep–Dec; 27 [5–6]: 9–12).
THE ORIGIN OF THE LOUISIANA BILL
The central language in the Ouachita Parish School Board's policy surfaced in SB 561. The bill extended permission to Louisiana's teachers to "help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught." The bill added directives aimed at state and local education administrators, instructing them "to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, to help students develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues" and "assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies." (See a detailed account of the bill's origin and political history in RNCSE 2008 Mar/Apr; 28 : 8–11.) Despite attempts to conceal its intentions by inserting a disclaimer borrowed from model legislation distributed by the Discovery Institute — the bill "shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion" — it is difficult to reconcile these assurances with LFF's stated mission: "to persuasively present biblical principles in the centers of influence on issues affecting the family through research, communication and networking." The Reverend Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, cited LFF's involvement when confidently telling the Baton Rouge Advocate (2008 Apr 1), "This is all about God in biology class," a contention bolstered by bill sponsor Nevers's admission to the paper that he introduced the bill at the behest of the LFF. While denying that the bill would pave the way for creationism to be taught in the state's public schools, Nevers said, "I believe that students should be exposed to both sides of scientific data and allow them to make their own decisions," adding, "I think the bill perfectly explains that it deals with any scientific subject matter which is taught in our public school system," even though the bill singles out evolution, the origin of life, global warming, and human cloning for special attention.
Despite advice from a broad spectrum of opponents, the Senate Education Committee stripped out only a little of the bill's objectionable language in a hearing on April 17, 2008. Senator Nevers, according to the Advocate (2008 Apr 18), "denied that his proposal was a bid to promote creationism," saying, "This bill does not promote religion or ask to introduce religion in any classroom" — a protestation he, LFF, and the Discovery Institute repeated often and unconvincingly throughout the legislative process.
In order to mollify its opponents, the bill was amended to remove instructions that "students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught" along with the list of scientific topics to be critiqued. The bill was also renamed the Louisiana Science Education Act and renumbered SB 733. The bill now required the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) merely to "allow and assist"teachers and administrators to "create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied." BESE was charged with providing "support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review [the] scientific theories being studied." The bill's emphasis now lay in a provision encouraging teachers to use "supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner, as permitted by the city, parish, or other local public school board."
Speaking to the Advocate (2008 Apr 20), the LFF's executive director expressed disappointment at the revisions to the bill, describing his support of it as now only lukewarm, even though Nevers assured the paper that the amendments "did not change the intent of the bill." Barbara Forrest, the co-author of Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, a member of NCSE's board of directors, and a philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, remained concerned. "The bill itself is still a very problematic bill, a stealth creationism bill," she explained. "The strategy now is to sanitize the terminology, which is what they did with the original bill and which they are doing now."
The Advocate (2008 Apr 19) editorially acknowledged that "it seems clear that the supporters of this legislation are seeking a way to get creationism ... into science classrooms," but, "[a]t this point, the wording of the bill seems more symbol than substance. But its implication — that real science is somehow being stifled in Louisiana's classrooms — does not seem grounded in actual fact."
THE BILL PASSES
Shortly after the Senate bill cleared its committee in amended form, a bill containing the original Senate text was introduced in the House. House Bill 1168 was introduced in the Louisiana House of Representatives on April 21, 2008, and dubbed by its sponsor the "Louisiana Academic Freedom Act." That sponsor, Frank A Hoffman (R-District 15), had been the assistant superintendent of the Ouachita Parish School System when it passed the district's controversial policy.
While HB 1168 awaited its committee hearing, SB 733 was unanimously passed by the Louisiana Senate on April 28, 2008. The full Senate restored the list of supposedly controversial topics before sending the bill to the House. The move appeased the LFF, and sponsor Nevers told the Associated Press (2008 Apr 29) that he restored the list because without it the bill was too vague. Speaking earlier to the Hammond Daily Star (2008 Apr 6), Nevers was anything but vague about the bill, in effect acknowledging that its intent is to ensure that "scientific data related to creationism should be discussed when dealing with Darwin's theory."
After the bill passed the Senate, Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote to the New Orleans Times-Picayune (2008 May 6), observing, "proponents offer deceptive arguments about encouraging students to think critically. But Louisiana's education standards already do that. The real intent is to introduce classroom materials that raise misleading objections to the well-documented science of evolution and offer a religious idea called intelligent design as a supposed alternative."
On May 21, 2008, the House Education Committee took up the issue. It set aside the House's version of the bill, and passed SB 733 unanimously, in slightly amended form. The Associated Press reported (2008 May 21) that, over the course of a hearing that lasted close to three hours, "[s]cience teachers called Senate Bill 733 a veiled attempt to add religion to science classes." Critics pointed out that the bill's stated goals are already covered by policies set by the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Tammy Wood, a science teacher from the Zachary, Louisiana, school district, told the committee:"There is absolutely no need for this bill," and added, according to the Advocate (2008 May 21), "I am begging you here today to kill this bill."
Opponents cited the presence and testimony of out-of-state "intelligent design" advocates Caroline Crocker, CEO of the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Center and Discovery Institute staffer Casey Luskin as evidence that the bill would open classrooms to creationism. Committee chairman Don Trahan (R–Lafayette) responded by proposing an amendment allowing BESE to forbid certain supplementary materials. Barbara Forrest told the committee that even the amended version was too broadly written. "Anything could get into the classroom," the Associated Press reported her telling the committee.
The bill, with Trahan's amendment in place, proceeded to the House floor. Then, as the Advocate (2008 Jun 12) explained, "[i]gnoring threats of a lawsuit, the Louisiana House" passed the bill, which "failed to generate a single question, passed 94–3 and appears poised for final approval."
"If this new law is used to promote religion in Louisiana public schools, I can guarantee there will be legal action," said Barry Lynn in a press release from Americans United (2008 Jun 12). Reminding legislators that the US Supreme Court overturned a Louisiana law requiring that evolution be balanced by creationism, Lynn added: "Louisiana students deserve better, and Louisiana taxpayers should not have their money squandered on this losing effort."
In an interview with the Christian Post (2008 Jun 12), John West, a vice president at the Discovery Institute, responded, "The proposed Louisiana law expressly states ... that it 'shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.'" In an interview with the Washington Times (2008 Jun 12), Jason Stern, LFF's vice president, insisted "It's not about a certain viewpoint. It's allowing [teachers] to teach the controversy."
Louisiana Coalition for Science, a grassroots group recently founded to advocate for accurate science education, decried the vote in a press release (2008 Jun 11). Barbara Forrest, who helped establish the group, compared the legislative fight to the tactics used to pass the Balanced Treatment Act: "The Discovery Institute, a national creationist organization, and the Louisiana Family Forum are using the same old tricks, but with new labels. ... Despite their denials, even the bill's backers know that SB 733 is a creationist bill written in creationist code language." She thanked Patricia Haynes Smith, Jean-Paul Morrell, and Karen Carter Peterson, the three representatives who opposed the bill, and closed on an optimistic note: "Now that the House has passed the bill, the Senate has one more chance to do the right thing. The entire country is watching. They should reject this bill and let teachers do their jobs."
Given the bill's unanimous Senate passage, the only sticking point would have been the amendment allowing BESE to veto certain books. The Associated Press reported (2008 Jun 12), "Nevers said he will ask the Senate to approve the amendment. He stressed that the amendment does not require BESE to review all the materials. The state board would only step in if someone raised a question about whether the material was appropriate." In the remaining two weeks of the session, legislators were also struggling with controversial issues, including the next year's budget, a voucher proposal for New Orleans public schools, and an unpopular legislative pay raise.
ON THE GOVERNOR'S DESK
Even before the bill passed the Senate, there had been questions about how Governor Jindal would respond. The Washington Times reported (2008 Jun 12), "A spokeswoman for Republican Gov Bobby Jindal would not say whether he will sign the bill, saying only that he will review it when it gets to his desk." Given that Jindal supported teaching "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution during his campaign, a veto was seen as a long shot.
His remarks in an appearance on CBS's Face the Nation on June 15, 2008, did not clarify matters. Host Chris Reid asked Jindal about his views on "intelligent design". In response, Jindal opposed using state power to impose creationism, but also endorsed the basic creationist framing of the issue: "I do not think this is something the federal or state government should be imposing its views on local school districts. ... I think local school boards should be in a position of deciding ... what students should be learning. ... Some want only to teach 'intelligent design', some only want to teach evolution. I think both views are wrong, as a parent." The Center for American Progress reacted to Jindal's statements by noting (2008 Jun 16) that Jindal's position "effectively giv[es] school boards carte blanche to teach scientifically inaccurate ideas, just like Kansas did in 2005, when it rewrote standards to cast doubt on evolution."
On June 16, 2008, the Louisiana Senate approved the bill as amended by the House of Representatives; this sent the bill to the governor, and bill opponents to the barricades. Will Sentell of the Advocate reported (2008 Jun 17) that those "[o]pponents [were] mostly outside the State Capitol," since "the Senate voted 36–0 without debate to go along with the same version of the proposal that the House passed ... 94–3."
Opponents spoke forcefully against the bill; Jindal had twenty days to veto the bill or it would automatically become law, just as if he had signed it. Barry Lynn of Americans United told Sentell that the bill "is clearly designed to smuggle religion into the science classroom, and that's unwise and unconstitutional." In an open letter to Governor Jindal posted on its website (see sidebar 1), LCFS urged Jindal to veto the bill, calling it "a thinly disguised attempt to advance the 'Wedge Strategy' of the Discovery Institute (DI), a creationist think tank that is collaborating with the LA Family Forum to get 'intelligent design' (ID) creationism into LA public school science classes" (http://lasciencecoalition.org/2008/06/17/jindal-veto-sb-733).
One of Jindal's college professors lent his voice to a press release announcing the LCFS's open letter. Arthur Landy taught Jindal genetics at Brown University. He reminded Jindal, "Without evolution, modern biology, including medicine and biotechnology, would not make sense. In order for today's students in Louisiana to succeed in college and beyond, in order for them to take the fullest advantages of all that the 21st century will offer, they need a solid grounding in genetics and evolution. Governor Jindal was a good student in my class when he was thinking about becoming a doctor, and I hope he does not do anything that would hold back the next generation of Louisiana's doctors." Barbara Forrest added," The governor has a moral responsibility to Louisiana children to veto this bill."
Others calling for Jindal to veto cited his training in biology. The New York Times, in a June 21, 2008, editorial, added that the bill "would have the pernicious effect of implying that evolution is only weakly supported and that there are valid competing scientific theories when there are not. In school districts foolish enough to head down this path, the students will likely emerge with a shakier understanding of science," and concluded, "If Mr Jindal has the interests of students at heart, the sensible thing is to veto this Trojan horse legislation."
The AAAS repeated its opposition to the bill in a letter dated June 20, 2008 (see sidebar 2). "The bill disingenously implies that particular theories, including evolution, are controversial among scientists," wrote AAAS's chief executive officer, Alan I Leshner. "Asserting that there are controversies about these concepts among scientists — when in fact there are not — will only confuse students, not enlighten them," he added. "I urge you to protect the future of science education in your state by rejecting this bill." A coalition of nine scientific societies led by the American Institute for Biological Sciences pointed out the added danger that "[i]f SB 733 is signed into law, Louisiana will undoubtedly be thrust into the national spotlight as a state that pursues politics over science and education."
Political conservatives joined the call. John Derbyshire wrote an essay at National Review Online, calling on Jindal to "Veto This Bill!" Like many observers, Derbyshire worried that "The entire effect of this law ... will be that one cartload of Louisiana taxpayers' money will go to the Discovery Institute for their mendacious 'textbooks', then another cartload will go into the pockets of lawyers to defend the inevitable challenge to the law in federal courts, which will inevitably be successful, as they always are, and should be." This echoed earlier complaints by the Advocate's editorial board, which wrote (2008 May 21) that the bill will "provide a full-time living for dozens of lawyers in the American Civil Liberties Union. They will have a field day suing taxpayerfunded schools as groups use Nevers' language to push Biblebased texts in the schools. That's unconstitutional, and we can see the taxpayer paying — and paying, and paying — for this policy in the future."
THE BILL BECOMES LAW
That concern was widely echoed when it was revealed that Jindal had signed the bill on June 25. Jindal's approval of the bill was buried in a press release announcing 75 bills he signed in previous days. Bill Barrow of the Times-Picayune broke the story on June 27, 2008, observing that the bill "attracted national attention and strongly worded advice" for Jindal. Jindal did not return media calls for comment.
"The possibility of the introduction of 'wacko' theories of the origins of life worries Carencro High School science teacher Warren Sensat," reported the Lafayette Daily Advertiser (2008 Jun 26). Sensat told the newspaper, "When you open the door to bring in unapproved curriculum, you can bring in some wacko stuff." Other teachers were less worried. Tim Tate, a science curriculum supervisor for the Lafayette Parish schools told the Advertiser that "he's not worried about teachers using inappropriate materials. He expects teachers to only focus on the state curriculum, but acknowledges that different ideas will always be brought into the classroom." Speaking to WWL-TV (2008 Jun 24), Louisiana ACLU Executive Director Marjorie Esman was less sanguine. "I think there's a lot of room for things to get sneaked into the classrooms that should not be there," she said.
Science education advocates are ready for action. "We're known for suing school boards when we need to do so and we will not shy away from doing that if that's what we need to do this case," the ACLU's Esman told WWL-TV (2008 Jun 24). Barry Lynn of Americans United took a firm stance in a press release (2008 Jun 27): "Let me state clearly and up front that any attempts to use this law to sneak religion into public schools through the back door will not be tolerated. ... I call on all concerned residents of Louisiana to help us make sure that public schools educate, not indoctrinate."
Discovery Institute vice president John West insisted that the bill would not be used for such purposes. West told the Times-Picayune, "Someone who uses materials to inject religion into the classroom is not only violating the Constitution, they are violating the bill." But when the LFF's Gene Mills was asked by New Scientist's Amanda Gefter (2008 Jul 9) "whether the new law fits with the organisation's religious agenda," he answered: "Certainly it's an extension of it." Gefter predicted that the new law's proponents are preparing to take advantage of its advocacy of supplementary textbooks: "The LFF is now promoting the use of online 'add-ons' that put a creationist spin on the contents of various science texts in use across the state, and the Discovery Institute has recently produced Explore Evolution, a glossy text that offers the standard ID critiques of evolution."
The LCFS website thanked its fellow defenders of the integrity of science education "in keeping with our southern tradition of good manners," but promised, "We intend to hold [supporters of the bill] to [their] public assertions that no creationist materials will be used in our children's science classes and that no religious concepts will be presented to our children as science" (http://lasciencecoalition.org/2008/06/27/thank-you-from-lcfs). LCFS also urged parents and students to keep an eye out on the materials being introduced in classrooms, asking them to contact LCFS and NCSE if their schools are introducing creationism. Like LCFS, NCSE is watching Louisiana, and we both intend to hold the bill's proponents to their public assertions that no creationist materials will be used in science classes and that no religious concepts will be presented to children as science.