In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional Louisiana’s Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act in the landmark case Edwards v. Aguillard. The Balanced Treatment Act required public schools that taught students about the scientific theory of evolution to also teach them about the Christian belief in the literal interpretation of the creation myth contained in the book of Genesis.
Nearly thirty years later, Louisiana still stubbornly refuses to remove the dead letter law from its books, despite the fact that new earth creationism is now an increasingly fringe religious belief shared almost exclusively by fundamentalist Protestants. In 1996, Pope John Paul II declared that Charles Darwin’s theory was more than a mere hypothesis and, in so doing, inalterably reconciled the Catholic Church’s interpretation of Genesis with the overwhelming body of scientific evidence. Today, most mainstream Protestants also reject the literal reading of the Genesis creation myth, which holds that the entire universe was created only 6,000 years ago over the course of six days, preferring, instead, to understand Genesis as a poignant parable, an elegant story about humankind’s special role in God’s complex creation.
Yet, despite the Catholic Church’s and mainstream Protestantism’s maturation on the subject of observable, verifiable, and objective scientific reality and the ways in which its leaders and followers have largely reconciled their religious faith with evolutionary science, new earth creationism continues to play an outsized role in our public policy discourse, particularly in the American South.
I have written dozens of articles about the Louisiana Science Education Act, an insidious law enacted in 2008 by an Catholic governor with a degree in biology from an Ivy League university. The LSEA is nothing more than a cleverly-worded attempt to circumvent the Supreme Court’s decision in Edwards v. Aguillard, providing public school science teachers with the ability to introduce creationism as a legitimate scientific theory, under the guise of “critical thinking.”
It is a bad and embarrassing law, a law that serves as an open invitation for proselytization in the science classroom and seeks to muddle up the definition of science so much as to render it as nothing more than an exercise in rhetoric. There is no doubt the law has abused children of their right to an accurate and informed education in the sciences, but ultimately, the law was primarily intended as a symbolic token of appreciation from Gov. Bobby Jindal to his supporters on the far religious right.
The year after it was enacted, Jindal’s Department of Education mandated that every school district include a statement acknowledging compliance in their Pupil Progression Plans. The very next year, when no one was looking, Jindal’s Department of Education quietly removed the requirement. Although they may have stood up for their boss in public, privately, Gov. Jindal’s staff understood that the LSEA was a national laughingstock.
In fact, Stafford Palmieri, Gov. Jindal’s final Chief of Staff, had first joined the Jindal administration after working for the Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education policy think tank that called the LSEA “a devastating flaw” of Louisiana’s education system and chastised the state for being “haunted by anti-science influences that threaten biology education.”
Year after year, State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson and my friend Zack Kopplin urged the legislature to repeal the LSEA, and year after year, the repeal bill died in the Senate Education Committee. State Senators, in an attempt to defend the bill, routinely revealed themselves to be ignorant charlatans. There was former State Sen. Julie Quinn, who refuted the expert testimony of scientists because, in her opinion, they merely possessed “little letters behind their names.” There was State Sen. Mike Walsworth, who once asked a biology teacher who had been explaining a laboratory experiment involving the creation and mutations of e.Coli bacteria if e.Coli could ever evolve into a human being. He meant it to be a “gotcha question.” Then there was State Sen. Elbert Guillory, who explained his support for the LSEA by telling a story of being healed from an undisclosed ailment by a half-naked witch doctor. These are the people Louisiana elects and then appoints to serve as the first arbiters of education policy.
These people, at least the majority of them, are not serious public servants. I once believed, perhaps naively, that their support of a nationally embarrassing “creationism in the classroom” law was informed by their sincere beliefs. But after watching this spectacle every single year, after seeing the ways in which lawmakers contort their words and struggle pathetically to articulate a coherent rationale for a disgraceful law passed in an effort to symbolically appease a small but vocal lobby of radical Christian dominionists who truly don’t give a damn about science or public education, I know that the only sincere thing on display is cowardice.
Today, Republican State Sen. Dan Claitor tried to convince his colleagues on the Senate Education Committee to finally remove the 29-year-old unconstitutional Balanced Treatment Act from the books. Claitor, to his great credit, has always seen the absurdity of the state’s creationism in the classroom laws. But instead of urging for a repeal of the LSEA, Sen. Claitor, for at least the second time, urged the Senate Education Committee to do something that should have been far less controversial: Remove a dead letter law that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down 29 years ago. Sure, it’s also a symbolic gesture, but it symbolizes a step in the right direction for science education in Louisiana.
Newly-elected State Sen. John Milkovich, like Sen. Claitor, is also an attorney, except that, as he revealed today, he lacks a basic understanding of the law and science education, the only two things he should have familiarized himself with before debating a law about science education. Curiously, he seemed completely unfamiliar with the Louisiana Science Education Act.
Sen. Milkovich, in his best impression of the worst law professor in the country, criticized Claitor’s bill by comparing it to laws against slavery. There was merit in keeping dead letter statutes on the books, he implied, because the Supreme Court may one day decide to reverse itself or overturn laws that had been passed by Congress and signed into law by the President. The only example he could muster was the infamous 1857 case Dred Scott v. Sandford, in which the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the federal government could not regulate or prohibit slavery in any territory that joined the country after its initial formation. Put another way, Sen. Milkovich compared Edwards v. Aguillard, a case that protected public school students from religious indoctrination under the pretense of science, with Dred Scott, a case universally regarded as the worst stain in the history of the Supreme Court and one that declared that a black man, even if he is free, can always be considered a slave.
Sen. Milkovich wasn’t being cleverly Socratic with his comparision; he was being bombastic, insulting, and absurd, implicitly comparing the plight of a black American stripped of his basic habeas corpus and due process rights to a creationist public school science teacher denied his opportunity to use his taxpayer-subsidized job as a way to recruit children to believe in his religion. Yes, that’s why Louisiana should keep the unconstitutional Balanced Treatment Act in the cryogenic freezer. Who knows? Maybe one day, the Supreme Court will declare the United States to be a particular type of Christian nation and unshackle the bonds of oppression that it has tied to the hands of creationist public school science teachers.
Sen. Milkovich wasn’t done yet, though. He wanted Sen. Claitor to know that science actually agreed with new earth creationism, and he rattled off a list of talking points that seemed memorized from Discovery Institute flash cards. Hadn’t Sen. Claitor heard about the discovery of Noah’s Ark? Apparently, they’re not receiving the same chain e-mails. And what about all of the “new scientific discoveries” that proved the Genesis account of new earth creationism? Sen. Milkovich asked.
“In fact, scientific research and developments and advances in the last 100 years, particularly in the last fifty, twenty, ten years have validated the Biblical story of creation by archeological discoveries of civilizations in the Mideast that secularists said did not exist and further archeological research determines are true. There’s some published research that an ark or large boat was found on the top of Mount Ararat and then in addition the point of the notion of instantaneous creation has been validated by the scientific study of heliocentric circles in rocks, which is consistent with an instantaneous…. I’m guess I’m asking this,” Sen. Milkovich concludes, “are you aware that there is an abundance of recent science that actually confirms the Genesis account of creation?”
“I’m not asking you to give up your belief in God,” Sen. Claitor said. “I’m not asking you to get in bed with the devil. I’m asking you to follow your oath to follow the Constitution.”
This is precisely how the radical religious right has continually held states like Louisiana hostage: They have demanded that the law treat them preferentially, and when anyone dares to challenge the constitutionality of their demands, they reflexively pretend as if they are victims of some sort of religious oppression. It’s genius, and it works. Line up as many Nobel laureate scientists as you possibly can: Sen. Milkovich read something somewhere about Noah’s Ark, and if you dare to question his understanding of the facts, you’re essentially asking him to become an atheist.
Dan Claitor’s bill died in committee by a vote of 4 to 2. “That’s one more than I got last year,” he optimistically said afterward. Claitor is a Republican.