Dismissing Darwin

Records show teachers and school board members conspiring to teach creationism in public school science class.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, left, Jesus Christ, center, and Rep. Valarie Hodges, right.
Louisiana’s education tribunal: Gov. Bobby Jindal, Jesus Christ, and state Rep. Valarie Hodges.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo. Photos courtesy Office of the Governor/State of Louisiana; James Shepard, Alex Beynon, Sanjeev Beekeeper/Flickr; Louisiana House of Representatives

When I was a high school senior in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 2010, I began a campaign to repeal my state’s “creationism law,” which allows teachers to sneak religion into public school science classes by using materials that criticize evolution. Seventy-eight Nobel laureates and many other prominent scientists and educators have joined me in calling for the repeal of this law, officially known as the Louisiana Science Education Act, and tens of thousands of people have signed petitions against it over the past four years, but so far we’ve failed. Louisiana teachers can still bring religion into public school science classrooms, legally.

The Louisiana State Legislature has voted to keep this law despite repeated challenges, in part because it has a fig leaf: No one has managed to demonstrate what is going on inside Louisiana classrooms. In 2013, as I was testifying before the Louisiana Senate Education Committee in support of a bill to repeal the law, Sen. Conrad Appel, the committee chairman, asked me, “Do you have any evidence of school districts or individual schools that are physically teaching creationism?”

There has been plenty of evidence, but it hasn’t been direct. For example, in Tangipahoa Parish, in 2011, school board member Brett Duncan requested that guidelines be developed “for the review of supplemental materials to be used by teachers for discussing evolution, creationism, and intelligent design.” That same year a pupil progression plan (an outline of what a school district intends to do that year) for Terrebonne Parish said that under the creationism law, teachers will “deliver facts for both arguments”—both evolution and creationism.

Gov. Bobby Jindal was asked about this law by NBC’s Education Nation and said, “I’ve got no problem if a school board, a local school board, says we want to teach our kids about creationism.” That is in fact why he signed the law.

But none of this was enough. I couldn’t name a single teacher who was teaching creationism. “You talk about a back door [to teaching creationism],” Appel said. He told me that I had no evidence “that indicates such a back door is actually being used.” The Senate Education Committee voted against the repeal.

“I just want to get this message out there that Louisiana doesn’t support or promote the teaching of religious doctrine in the classroom,” Appel said. “Period.”

Yet in the fall of 2013, at Negreet High School, in Sabine Parish, teacher Rita Roark insulted the religion of C.C. Lane, a Buddhist student in her sixth-grade science class. Roark told the class that evolution is a “stupid” theory that “stupid people made up because they don’t want to believe in God.” Roark’s science tests included a fill-in-the-blank question that said, “ISN’T IT AMAZING WHAT THE _____________ HAS MADE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” and students were expected to write in “LORD.”

When confronted with these episodes, Appel said he didn’t believe that they had happened because Louisiana’s creationism law allows them.

Now I have evidence that it’s not just one teacher. I have evidence that religion, not science, is what’s being taught systematically in some Louisiana school systems. I have obtained emails from creationist teachers and school administrators, as well as a letter signed by more than 20 current and former Louisiana science teachers in Ouachita Parish in which they say they challenge evolution in the classroom without legal “tension or fear” because of pro-creationism policies. I’ve found the back door.

* * *

Courtesy of the Ouachita Parish School System

I requested a copy of the teacher-signed letter from the Ouachita Parish School Board. The first signature is from Robert Webber, the superintendent of Ouachita Parish Schools, but the school system’s lawyer, Elmer Noah, told me that the letter was not a “school board document” and that the school system didn’t possess it. “I object to your characterization of the document as a public record,” he said.

Noah told me that Darrell White, a retired military judge from Baton Rouge, had the last remaining copy of the letter. When I called White and asked him for a copy, he said he wasn’t willing to do an interview and hung up on me.

I had met White four years earlier at a hearing of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to approve new biology textbooks for Louisiana schools—books that included evolution. Standing at the witness table, White held a cane in one hand and with the other was shaking a shirt that read, “natural selection.” According to White, it was the same as the shirt that Columbine murderer Dylan Klebold had worn (Eric Harris, not Klebold, actually wore the shirt), and teaching evolution would lead to a “Columbine-style shooting” in the schools of Baton Rouge.

White, a lifetime member of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, has spent years trying to connect evolution to the Columbine massacre. In a 2006 article for the creationist site Answers in Genesis, he proclaimed that Charles Darwin should be “dubbed the patron saint of school violence.”

White is one of the most influential conservative power brokers in Louisiana. He helped found the Louisiana Family Forum, a right-wing lobbying group that is so well-connected that the New York Times described Jindal as “practically one of the family.” He is also the Louisiana coordinator for American Vision, a “Biblical Worldview Ministry” and hate group, whose leader, Gary DeMar, calls for the execution of “sodomites” and “abortionists and their parents.”

White is the reason that creationism can be taught in Louisiana public schools. In April 2006 he organized a meeting in West Monroe, a city in Ouachita Parish, to inform teachers about intelligent design. “A judge from Baton Rouge will speak on Intelligent Design,” wrote Cynthia Osborne, a curriculum coordinator for the Ouachita Parish School System, in an email to her science teachers. “Please inform any teachers they are invited to attend.”

A few months later, the Ouachita Parish School Board passed a creationist science curriculum policy that had been lifted from White’s website. Ouachita’s policy states that teachers are allowed to “review, analyze, and critique in an objective manner the scientific strengths and weaknesses” of theories that “may generate controversy (such as biological evolution).” The Monroe News Star reported that during the school board meeting, one member, Red Sims, said he thought that evolution meant “that people came from monkeys. … I hope they won’t be teaching that.”

While promoting creationism in Ouachita, White discovered an important ally: Assistant Superintendent Frank Hoffmann. He had presented White’s policy to the school board and told members that teachers would have “academic freedom to teach both sides of controversial subjects such as evolution.” In 2007, Hoffmann was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives.

Rep. Hoffmann took Ouachita’s creationism policy statewide. Along with state Sen. Ben Nevers, he sponsored the Louisiana Science Education Act, aka the creationism law. This law allows teachers to use “supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories,” including evolution and global warming. Like the Ouachita policy it’s based on, this law is a back door to teach creationism.

Nevers was explicit in his goals for this law. He told the Hammond Star that the Louisiana Family Forum suggested the bill to him because “[t]hey believe that scientific data related to creationism should be discussed when dealing with Darwin’s theory.”

Several scientists testified against the Louisiana Science Education Act before the House Education Committee, including Bryan Carstens, a biology professor at Louisiana State University. He brought a petition from LSU’s biology department that said, “There is no controversy among professional biologists about the fact of evolution.”

Hoffmann objected, citing several creationist professors from Louisiana College, a Baptist school whose president emeritus once described the media as a “tool of Satan.”

“Did you hear the testimony of the earlier professors we had here?” Hoffmann asked. Once the cheers from the audience died down, he followed up, “You heard their credentials?”

When the Louisiana Science Education Act passed, White sent out an email celebrating the end of “Darwin-only” education in Louisiana. He said that the creationism law would “end the hemorrhaging rash of Columbine school violence copycat plots.”

* * *

In 2012, at the suggestion of Judge White, a small school district outside Baton Rouge, the Central Community School System, adopted a version of Ouachita’s creationism policy.

At the Central Community School Board meeting, Mickey Cleveland, a Ouachita Parish teacher, presented a letter to the board in support of the new policy. (Cleveland once told the Monroe News Star that, “Darwin didn’t have the microelectronic microscope. … Science is proving creation.”) This is the letter I would later chase, the one signed by multiple science teachers, which Ouachita claimed was only in White’s possession. The letter was also emailed by White to Central Community School Board President Jim Gardner and board member Jim Lloyd.

In November 2014 I sent a public records request to Central Community Schools for the letter, but the administration refused to provide it to me. A secretary told me “no such letter was entered into the minutes nor to my knowledge do any of the board members have a copy of it.” For years Central has provided this response to public records requests about the letter, including one from the American Civil Liberties Union.

It wasn’t until late March 2015 that Ouachita Parish’s lawyer finally released the letter to me (noting his objections), along with a number of emails. (Central still claims to not have the letter.) Based on the emails I obtained, it appears that at least two school board members, Lloyd and Gardner, from Central, deliberately withheld the letter from public records requests. When I pointed this out, Michael Faulk, the superintendent of Central Community Schools, described my request as a “personal vendetta” that he’d wasted an “inordinate amount of time on.”

The reason for this evasiveness from these two school boards is that this is a list of teachers who signed their names to a letter that is for all intents and purposes an admission of teaching creationism.

Other emails from Ouachita Parish provided even more evidence that creationism was being taught in Louisiana schools. Two West Monroe High School science teachers, Kyle Hill and Jessica Wyatt, discussed questions for their students to promote higher-order thinking skills. Promoting critical thinking is one of the main political arguments for the Louisiana Science Education Act, and these teachers interpreted it to mean—as the designers of the act intended—an invitation to teach creationism. One question they came up with was: “Name an evolutionary change that would support both the big bang theory and creationism?” The answer: “snake leg nubbs.”

Danny Pennington, a creationist principal at Good Hope Middle School in Ouachita, used to be a biology teacher at West Monroe High School, and he created a set of creationist curricula and DVDs meant for the public school classroom. While employed by the public school system, he filmed himself exploiting the Louisiana Science Education Act to attack evolution. Another Louisiana creationist, Charles Voss, who publishes his own creationist supplemental materials, emailed Pennington: “The DVD you made in the classroom is needed to show what a teacher can do in a single period,” he said. “You literally destroyed evolution in one 40 minute period.”

I have requested a copy of Pennington’s videos, but so far they have not been provided to me. I did obtain a copy of his written curriculum, which uses traditional creationist rhetoric such as: “Students and teachers should understand that many past conclusions based on fossil evidence were simply wrong.” Pennington states that one biology textbook was incorrect in teaching that whales had a common ancestor that lived on land. (Whales actually did have a common ancestor that lived on land.) 

Despite the protections of the Louisiana Science Education Act, it’s still possible that school systems or individual teachers could get into trouble for lessons that are too explicitly religious. In his guidelines for teachers using his curriculum, Pennington advises teachers to “link teaching of evolution to existing school district policies about teaching controversial issues” in order to stay out of legal trouble.

Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education told me, “Getting teachers to use attacks on evolution as a proxy for advocating creationism has a long history, especially in Louisiana.” He said, “It’s clear that that’s what teachers in Ouachita Parish are doing, and what Darrell White is encouraging in other districts.”

If any students or families in Ouachita Parish decide to sue the school system or anyone in it for teaching creationism, White has arranged legal protection. He has emailed school board members across the state with a letter from Mike Johnson, a lawyer for the Creation Museum and current Louisiana state representative, which offers free legal representation from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian organization whose mission is to defend “the right to hear and speak the Truth.”

In 2010, Livingston Parish came close to endorsing the teaching of creationism. At a Livingston Parish School Board meeting, Jan Benton, then the school system’s director of curriculum (now a member of the school board), told the board that the Louisiana Science Education Act was for “critical thinking and creationism.” Board member David Tate got fired up and announced, “We don’t pray to the ACLU and all them people; we pray to God.” Board member Clint Mitchell said, “Teachers should have the freedom to look at creationism and find a way to get it into the classroom.” But at that time, without money for a possible court case, Livingston Parish decided not to make creationism an official part of the district curriculum the way Central and Ouachita had.

Other emails released by Ouachita show that Livingston Parish has kept trying to put creationism in schools. In one email, White wrote, “Let’s get some more Livingston School Board members to a meeting and develop a timetable to introduce the science academic freedom resolution in this Parish.” He ended his email by saying, “Satan is pleased with the status quo!”

State Rep. Valarie Hodges responded to White’s email. (Hodges once withdrew a positive vote from a school voucher bill after she realized that Islam, as well as Christianity, was a religion. She said, “I like the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school … unfortunately it will not be limited to the Founders’ religion.”) Hodges offered to contact Livingston Parish School Board members and host a meeting with them and White in her legislative office. White advised school board members to adopt a policy with “aspirational language” this time around, rather than creationism or specific supplementary materials “which would then be subject to challenge by ideologues.” 

From the governor who signed the law to the teachers who implement the policy, everyone recognizes this is about creationism. I told Sen. Appel that I wanted to work with the Senate Education Committee to investigate what was being taught in Louisiana. “I would support that,” he said. I’m working on obtaining copies of Ouachita’s and Central’s curricula and more emails. I’m doing my part. The Senate Education Committee will consider a new bill to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act on Wednesday. I look forward to the legislators doing their part.