In America, the most controversial laws typically have the least controversial names. It’s one of our grandest and most cynical traditions. How could you possibly vote against the PATRIOT Act? That, by definition, would be unpatriotic, right? Last week, the Arkansas legislature overrode a veto by the Governor and passed the most restrictive anti-abortion law in the country, the “Human Heartbeat Protection Act,” a great name for a blatantly unconstitutional law.
While the practice of naming legislation the same way corporations use focus groups to sell cereal or cars or anti-depression medication may seem cynical and exploitative, it is nonetheless very effective. Even if you don’t know a single thing about policy, you can still make a fortune if you know how to market policy.
There may be no better example of this phenomenon than those behind the promotion of so-called “academic freedom” laws. “Academic freedom” sounds like a feel-good, aspirational ideal; the term may not be in the Constitution, but it sounds like it should be. And if you’re a progressive or an academic or both, the chances are that you consider the broad concept of “academic freedom” to be sacrosanct, something critically important to a functioning democracy, a thriving economy, and a real and robust education system. But “academic freedom” is not really the intention of those who promote, lobby for, and draft “academic freedom” legislation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
If your state legislature or your Governor is supporting an “academic freedom” bill, beware: Today, “academic freedom” is code language for “religious indoctrination.” Despite what it sounds like, “academic freedom” legislation is almost entirely concerned with giving public schools “legal” (albeit likely unconstitutional) permission to promote the religious beliefs of evangelical Protestants, particularly New Earth Creationists, in the science classroom. It’s really that simple.
And it’s complete nonsense.
In 2008, Governor Bobby Jindal signed the Louisiana Science Education Act, a law that has absolutely nothing to do with science education and everything to do with making sure that New Earth Creationists would be given a platform in public science classes. It wasn’t the first creationist law in the country; we’ve had others, but all of those had been struck down as unconstitutional.
No doubt whatsoever, the Louisiana Science Education Act is unconstitutional. However cleverly worded and evasive it may be, the LSEA was intended to allow for the state-sponsored endorsement of creationism, and as such, even if it never is actually used as intended, it still violates the Establishment Clause.
The fools behind this legislation aren’t scientists; they’re religious zealots and pandering, comically ignorant politicians. State Senator Ben Nevers, the man who introduced the legislation (but quite obviously didn’t write a single word of it), revealed that he was actually working at the behest of the Louisiana Family Forum. “They (the Louisiana Family Forum) believe that scientific data related to creationism should be discussed when dealing with Darwin’s theory,” he said. “This (the LSEA) would allow the discussion of scientific facts.”
I hate to break it to Senator Nevers, but the Louisiana Family Forum was punking him: There are no — count it, zero– “scientific facts” and not even a scintilla of scientific data that support creationism. Creationism is a religious belief. It is not and will never be science.
When Senator Karen Carter Peterson filed a bill to repeal the LSEA, State Senator Julie Quinn ridiculed the 78 Nobel laureates and the thousands of scientists all across the world who had endorsed the repeal effort as nothing more than people “with little letters behind their names.” And a year later, when Senator Peterson filed another repeal bill, during a hearing of the Senate Education Committee, State Senator Mike Walsworth asked one of the dumbest questions in the history of the Louisiana State Senate and, in the process, demonstrated to the entire world that he has absolutely no business on any committee that deals with education policy.
As loyal readers know, I have been covering the story of the Louisiana Science Education Act for more than two years. In February of 2011, I wrote about a kid named Zack Kopplin from Baton Rouge Magnet who had recently been commended by The Huffington Post as a “profile in evolutionary courage.” And I’ll give credit where credit is due: If Zack hadn’t sounded the alarms, if he hadn’t been as earnest and bold and articulate about the real problems with this so-called “academic freedom bill,” it may have been ignored as yet another symbolic victory for the entrenched political elites. I recruited Zack to at least spend a weekend at the New Leaders Council Institute in Baton Rouge.
Fast forward a couple of years: Zack is now nationally famous, and it, at times, is surreal to me, not only because I now consider Zack as one of my best friends and most talented collaborators, but also because his fame has become undeniably relevant. This act in Louisiana, the LSEA, is critically important, but the related research that Zack and others (including myself and bloggers like Jason Berry and journalists in small hometown newspapers like The News Star) on voucher schools in Louisiana and across the country is actually much more important and informative and terrifying.
This is fun “work,” if you can call it that with a straight face. None of us are getting paid to conduct this research. Zack hasn’t earned a dime from an official sponsor or someone who simply wants to advertise. And neither have I.
A couple of weeks ago, Bill Moyers asked Zack who, exactly, was behind the Louisiana Science Education Act. (I know I am STILL burying the lede, but stick with me). And without hesitation, Zack answered:
Nationally, there’s this group called the Discovery Institute. They’re a creationist think tank that’s been pushing these types of laws all around the country for years and years. They even tried to get one nationally included in George Bush’s No Child Left Behind with the Santorum amendment. And so they wrote this law and they passed it on locally to the Louisiana Family Forum, which is our affiliate of Focus on the Family. Senator Ben Nevers, who sponsored it, said the Louisiana Family Forum suggested the law to him because they wanted creationism discussed when talking about Darwin’s theory. So we know from the horse’s mouth exactly what this law is about.
Recently, Louisiana Family Forum President Gene Mills told The Houston Press:
“Zack does very well…The problem is, he’s lost every single time in the court of public opinion…There are only so many times you can tell everybody they’re dumb and still prevail in a popular vote.”
It’s a bafflingly ridiculous claim. The LSEA has never been subjected a public vote. The Great Reverend President Gene Mills, a man who apparently seems to be cheating on his organization’s taxes (by funding his 501c4 organization almost exclusively through 501c3 transfers), probably shouldn’t lecture anyone on calling people “dumb.”
The Discovery Institute’s response was even worse. Not only do they refuse to discount their role in this type of “academic freedom” legislation; they are proud of it.
The Discovery Institute wants “equal time” with Bill Moyers. I have an offer: I’ll give any and every one of you an unedited interview debate about these issues. Name a time and a date, because this is nonsense:
But why not have your producer now give Discovery Institute a call? Zack is a torchbearer for his cause. But he is also an outsider to the academic freedom lawmaking process, and so understandably missed the ball a few times, leaving your viewers in the dark.
Discovery Institute, on the other hand, is on the inside, and ready to shed light from a privileged vantage point. We draft and amend academic freedom language, counsel lawmakers privately,testify publicly, and are otherwise intimately acquainted with the intentions behind and likely effects of academic freedom legislation.
We’re ready, Discovery Institute.