By Barbara Forrest

“Louisiana Open for Business — Creationists Welcome”

That is the message that Louisiana public officials are sending to the rest of the country since the creationist LA Science Education Act (LSEA) was enacted into law in 2008. They are taking their instructions from, among others, the creationist Rev. Gene Mills, the executive director of the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF), the Focus on the Family affiliate that engineered passage of the bill in the Louisiana legislature. Rev. Mills, whose own children are homeschooled and attend private Christian schools, actually made his victory announcement using those exact words: “Louisiana is open for business. . . . And academic freedom and inquiry are welcomed here in the state of Louisiana.” Of course, in referring to “academic freedom and inquiry” he was speaking in the well-documented creationist code language in which his friends at the Discovery Institute, an intelligent design creationist think tank, have coached him. Last year —2008— was a good year for creationists in Louisiana. So far in 2009, they are still batting a thousand.

In spring 2008, the Louisiana legislature voted to approve the “LA Science Education Act,” SB 733, by a vote of 35-0 in the Senate and a vote of 94-3 in the House of Representatives. On June 25, Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the LSEA into law as Act 473 despite widespread requests, including from prestigious national scientific societies and his former Brown University biology professor Dr. Arthur Landy, that he veto it.  On January 13, 2009, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) adopted the policy by which it will administer Act 473.

The policy is a revised version of the initial one that the LA Dept. of Education had recommended at the December 2, 2008, meeting of BESE’s Student/School Performance Support Committee (S/SPS). This committee is a subset of three BESE members: committee chair Dale Bayard, who is the LA Family Forum’s point man on the state board; John Bennett; and Chas Roemer. However, the committee deferred action on the policy in order, as is now clear from Rev. Mills’s statements to the media, to give the LA Family Forum time to exert pressure for changes at the LA Dept. of Education. Shortly before the January 13 meeting, Mills was confident that the pressure would secure the results he wanted:

Mills said he is cautiously optimistic that talks among department officials [LA Dept. of Education], the state board and lawmakers involved in the issue will be productive.

(Baton Rouge Advocate, January 9, 2009)

The initial version [pdf] of the policy contained two crucial statements that would have prohibited school districts from doing what the legislative sponsors and creationist authors of the LA Science Education Act designed the law to allow them to do: (1) “Religious beliefs shall not be advanced under the guise of encouraging critical thinking”; and (2) “Materials that teach creationism or intelligent design or that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind shall be prohibited for use in science classes.”

Mills referred to these statements as expressing “religious hostility” and “a cheap shot.” In doing so, he revealed his true intent concerning both the LSEA and the BESE policy: to promote and protect the religious agenda of the LA Family Forum and its Discovery Institute accomplices. If, as Mills keeps insisting, the LSEA were only intended to promote good science education and not to promote creationism, there would be no reason for him to object to the initial policy’s prohibition against teaching “creationism or intelligent design or that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind.”

In the revised policy [pdf] introduced at the S/SPS Committee meeting on January 13, 2009, the first statement had been deleted prior to the meeting. To the second statement, another had been added: Evaluations of supplementary materials shall be made without regard to the religious or non-religious beliefs and affiliations of the authors of supplementary materials.” This new sentence was clearly added to prohibit any supplemental material from being challenged based on its having been authored by creationists. A prime example is the Discovery Institute’s new textbook, Explore Evolution, which was written by intelligent design creationists at the Discovery Institute, one of whom (Paul Nelson) is actually a young-earth creationist. (Most ID proponents at the Discovery Institute are “old-earth” creationists. See “The Creation-Evolution Continuum” by Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.)

In addition, the sentence bears all the marks of Discovery Institute craftsmanship. First, John West, associate director of the Discovery Institute’s creationist Center for Science and Culture, told a Louisiana newspaper last year that DI hopes to see Explore Evolution adopted as a supplement in Louisiana school districts as the result of the LSEA’s passage:

John West, the Discovery Institute’s vice president of public policy and legal affairs, said the group has supported the bill and hopes passage of the bill would allow supplemental materials such as Discover [Explore] Evolution, a book written by Discovery Institute staff that disputes some Darwinian findings. (Opelousas [LA] Daily World, June 16 2008; *Note: the story misreported the book’s title.) (*See LCFS post on Explore Evolution.)

Second, the Discovery Institute whines and complains on a regular basis about its operatives’ creationist beliefs and religious motivations being spotlighted by their critics. In fact, in a September 8, 2008, column entitled Any larger philosophical implications of intelligent design, or any religious motives, beliefs, and affiliations of ID proponents, do not disqualify ID from having scientific merit,” DI staffer Casey Luskin, who attended the May 21, 2008, Louisiana House Education Committee hearing on the LSEA, used language that is virtually identical to the sentence added to the January 13 version of the BESE policy:

Many critics of intelligent design (ID) have argued that ID is not science due to the alleged religious motives, beliefs, and affiliations of its proponents. Critics may trot out quotes from ID proponents discussing their own personal religious beliefs, motives, and affiliations, or discussing the larger philosophical implications they draw from ID, to allege that ID is not science, but religion. These common attacks against ID are both logically fallacious and highly hypocritical. (emphasis added)

(Here, once again, for comparison with Luskin’s words above, is the statement that had been added to the policy prior to the January 13 meeting:Evaluations of supplementary materials shall be made without regard to the religious or non-religious beliefs and affiliations of the authors of supplementary materials.” The added statement’s likeness with Luskin’s Discovery Institute language was no coincidence.)

The final item that the LA Family Forum and its supporters wanted stricken from the policy was the prohibition against teaching creationism. In order to get that sentence removed, they had to give up the Discovery Institute-friendly statement that had been added. But they were happy to do that in order to have the two statements referring to religion and creationism, respectively, removed. And removed they were, by a state board of education that caved in completely to their demands.

As the Louisiana legislature and Bobby Jindal did in spring 2008, the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education listened only to creationists rather than to the scientists and teachers who actually do the work of conducting scientific research and teaching science to children in the universities and public schools of Louisiana.

Two letters to BESE members from Barbara Forrest, co-founder of the LA Coalition for Science and veteran Louisiana educator, requesting that they (1) adopt the initial policy [pdf] as written by the LA Dept. of Education and (2) reject the changes [pdf] made by creationists in the revised January 13 policy, produced no responses from any of the board members.

Ten of the eleven members were present at the January 13, 2009, committee meeting, and all ten voted for the revised policy, which, as Mills indicated, had been refashioned to the satisfaction of the LA Family Forum (and, by extension, of the Discovery Institute) during negotiations with state officials prior to the January 13 meeting. Rev. Mills expressed his happiness with the policy to, a Religious Right website, announcing that “The BESE board . . . is to be commended, and Louisiana is open for business. . . . And academic freedom and inquiry are welcomed here in the state of Louisiana.” The Discovery Institute, which colluded in crafting the language of the LSEA and is providing legal advice to the LFF, applauded BESE’s adoption of the policy: “Louisiana Passes Rules Implementing Historic Academic Freedom Act.”

According to Discovery Institute education policy analyst Casey Luskin, “This is another victory for Louisiana students and teachers to have a climate of academic freedom to learn about scientific controversies over evolution and other topics in the curriculum.”

The Discovery Institute, signing off this column by reminding readers to “Stay tuned to Evolution News & Views for more as the story develops,” will remain actively involved in manipulating science education policy in Louisiana, which has the dubious distinction of being the first and —so far— the only state to adopt a version of the Discovery Institute’s model creationist legislation. If Louisiana public officials were looking for a category in which they can finally lead the rest of the country, they may have picked a winner with the creationist LA Science Education Act.

The lead editorial, “Creationists Show Clout” in the Sunday, January 18, 2009, Baton Rouge Advocate was blunt:

BESE joins the ranks of the wimps who have rolled over on the issue of creationism. It’s a sad thing. Not because faith is a bad thing in its proper place. Not because the Family Forum doesn’t have a right to its views. But because the state is siding with the backward against not only science but the rule of law in this country.  (emphasis added)

State officials who facilitated this handoff of public school science education policy to creationists had better hope that potential economic investors and families with school-age children who are thinking of moving to Louisiana haven’t been paying attention.  Because according to Rev. Mills, “LOUISIANA IS OPEN FOR BUSINESS.” And for creationists, the business climate in Louisiana could not be better.