In the 21 years Patsye Peebles taught biology in Louisiana public schools, she never received one complaint from parents for teaching evolution.
“The bottom line is that I never questioned their faith,” she said.
Whenever she had a student who brought up creationism, she always made it clear that science is science, and religion is religion.
“I wanted them to understand,” Peebles said, “that science has to be testable and proven with evidence.”
Whether they agreed with evolution or not, Peebles wanted her students to become what she calls “biologically literate citizens.” Now she worries that a new Louisiana law, which would encourage teachers to question evolution, will push the state’s education backward.
“My whole curriculum was based on evolution, I integrated it into everything I taught,” said Peebles, who testified against the law in a state Senate hearing and serves as a regional coordinator for the National Association of Biology Teachers.
“Now this muddies the waters and keeps students from having a really good education,” she said. “When they go to college, they will be at a disadvantage because they will not have a good understanding of science.”
Already, more than half of the state’s eighth-graders lack basic competence in science, according to recent national test scores.
But despite pleas from scientists, civil liberties activists and educators like Peebles, Gov. Bobby Jindal signed Louisiana Senate Bill 733 into law. The new statute will allow teachers to introduce into the classroom “supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials” about evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning.
The “Science Education Act,” as it is known to the law’s proponents, is the first such “academic freedom” bill to make it into the law books. The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that promotes intelligent design, is coordinating the promotion of similar bills throughout the country – this year in states including Florida, Alabama, Missouri, Michigan and South Carolina.
“These bills are full of creationist code language,” said Barbara Forrest, a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University. “The phrase ‘academic freedom’ has been used by creationists for decades.”
Forrest is co-author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, a 2004 book that exposed the theocratic agenda of the Discovery Institute and other creationist organizations. She is leading the Louisiana Coalition for Science, a network of individuals and groups who organized opposition to SB 733.
Measures like Louisiana’s new anti-evolution law are key pieces of the Religious Right agenda. Americans United for Separation of Church and State and its allies believe the Science Education Act is another attempt to force religion into public schools. AU has warned that lawsuits will result if Louisiana introduces religion into classrooms.
The major force behind the law in Louisiana is the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF), a Religious Right organization that actively promotes creationism. The LFF, which is a state affiliate of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, suggested the measure to its sponsor, Sen. Ben Nevers (D-Bogalusa).
In the past, Nevers repeatedly tried to push through legislation promoting creationism. In 2001, he voted in favor of a measure declaring Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution to be the cause for racism.
Nevers also introduced a resolution encouraging schools not to purchase textbooks that “do not provide students with opportunities to learn that there are differing scientific views on certain controversial issues in science.”
Though he insists the new law he sponsored is not intended to promote creationism in public schools, Nevers was caught telling the Hammond Daily Star otherwise.
“[The LFF] believe[s] that scientific data related to creationism should be discussed when dealing with Darwin’s theory,” Nevers told the newspaper. “This would allow the discussion of scientific facts. I feel the students should know there are weaknesses and strengths in both scientific arguments.”
The law was carefully stage-managed. At the Senate and House committee hearings, the room was filled with Religious Right activists. Proponents included a group of home-schooled students, who will not even be affected by the law.
“They see all those people there and all they see are votes,” said Forrest, who serves on the Americans United Board of Trustees. “The LFF has been lobbying the legislature for nine years laying this groundwork. They have been waiting for a number of factors to come together – now the legislature as a whole is conservative and we have a governor who favors creationism.”
Despite all the controversy surrounding this issue, Jindal barely publicized his signing of the new law. The press was not invited to witness the signing, and Jindal issued only a brief statement, in which he promised to “consistently support the ability of school boards and BESE [the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education] to make the best decisions to ensure a quality education for our children.”
Perhaps Jindal’s hush-hush behavior results from his indifference to the many educational, science and legal organizations that pleaded for a veto of the measure. Even Jindal’s former college professor released a statement through the Louisiana Coalition for Science.
“Gov. Jindal was a good student in my class when he was thinking about becoming a doctor,” said Prof. Arthur Landy of Brown University, “and I hope he doesn’t do anything that would hold back the next generation of Louisiana’s doctors.”
Nine of the nation’s most prestigious scientific societies sent letters to the governor asking him to veto the bill.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society, said, “The bill disingenuously implies that particular theories, including evolution, are controversial among scientists…. There is virtually no controversy about evolution among researchers, many of whom, like you, are deeply religious.”
The American Institute of Biological Sciences wrote, “It is difficult to understand how Louisiana or the nation can recruit and educate the quality healthcare providers our citizens deserve if we are willing to sacrifice science education in our K-12 classrooms. If 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.”
The New York Times and a well-known columnist for the conservative National Review also expressed concerns about the measure. The National Review headline made it quite clear for the governor: “Governor Jindal, Veto This Bill!”
As more pressure was put on Jindal, supporters of the meaure re-emphasized their claim that only “science” will be introduced to students. But teachers in Louisiana claim the intent of the law has to be to teach creationism, otherwise it serves no purpose.
“Louisiana already has well-designed curriculum in place that allows for critical thinking,” Peebles said. “There is no need for this.”
The new creationist movement masks creationism in science terminology, but leads students to the same conclusion – that life was created by a supernatural being, said Americans United Assistant Legal Director Richard Katskee.
Katskee served as one of the principal attorneys in the landmark Pennsylvania case in which a federal district court held that “intelligent design” attacks on evolution “distort and misrepresent scientific knowledge.” (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District)
“The Kitzmiller court exposed intelligent design as what it is – dressed-up creationism – so the Discovery Institute had to go back to the drawing board,” said Katskee.
Intelligent design, scholars insist, is merely the latest variant of creationism, concocted by the Discovery Institute and its allies. It was widely publicized this year by actor Ben Stein in his documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.
The LFF already has created a “textbook addendum” available on their Web site that teachers can use to introduce creationism to students.
To coincide with the textbook’s chapter on fossils, the LFF’s addendum states, “Flood waters do not produce fossils unless there is a sudden surge of water that is full of a lot of sediment. An example is when a dam breaks. When the billions of fossils that are everywhere are considered in this light, the earth’s history had some very violent floods in its past.”
Or to complement a chapter on life’s origins, the LFF’s “scientific” explanation states: “One of the smallest prokaryotes (H-39 strain of mycoplasma, a bacterium) consists of 640 proteins whose average length is 400 amino acid bondings….Under ideal conditions, the odds of this many amino acids coming together in the right order are approximately the same as winning the Power Ball Lotto every week for the next 640 years. How could this have happened accidently [sic]? The step from inanimate organic compounds to a living organism is beyond man’s ability to create.”
Critics say these types of publications will likely serve as the “supplemental materials” used to teach science under Louisiana’s “academic freedom” measure.
“They may not be saying ‘Noah’s flood’ or ‘Adam and Eve’ anymore, but it is the same creationist argument they are making,” said Josh Rosenau, Public Information Project Director for the National Center for Science Education.
The Louisiana Coalition for Science fought hard to educate the state legislature on the dangers of this law and what it really means. Nine Coalition members, including teachers and scientists, testified at the Senate and House hearings to oppose the bill, but received no response or acknowledgment.
“The legislature knew full well what this bill meant, and they acted like they just planned for it to pass,” Forrest said.
The reality of a new law that could result in costly litigation bills couldn’t come at a worse time for a state with economic challenges. Prior to its passage, Alan Leshner, executive publisher of the journal, Science, and chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, referred to this measure as a “dangerous distraction.”
“If the Louisiana bill becomes law, we are confident it would be overturned in court,” Leshner wrote for the Shreveport Times. “But the fight would be an expensive, divisive distraction.… At a time when Louisiana and the United States face serious economic challenges – and incredible opportunities – we must ensure the best possible science education for the next generation of problem-solvers.”
For the past 40 years, federal courts have ruled against teaching creationism in public schools, according to Forrest. Of the 10 federal cases that ruled against creationism, two came out of Louisiana.
One of those cases was the U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down Louisiana’s “Balanced Treatment for Creation Science and Evolution Science in Public School Instruction Act,” a 1981 law similar in purpose to SB 733.
The law required evolution and creationism to be taught equally in science classrooms. When the statute reached the Supreme Court in 1987, it was held unconstitutional since the legislature’s purpose “was clearly to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created human mankind.” (Edwards v. Aguillard)
It looks like Louisiana is repeating history, despite concerns from teachers, scientists and legal scholars.
“They just aren’t even paying attention to what teachers are telling them,” Peebles said. “We don’t need this, we don’t want it.”
Sandhya Bathija is a communications associate at Americans United for Separation of Church and State.