When a student in Louisiana opens her textbook in biology class, she might not have the standard Miller and Levine Biology with a dragonfly on the cover, and she might not ever learn about evolution. For some Louisiana public school students, their science textbook is the Bible, and in biology class they read the Book of Genesis to learn the “creation point of view.”
Through a public records request, I obtained dozens of emails from the Bossier Parish school district that specifically discuss teaching creationism. Shawna Creamer, a science teacher at Airline High School, sent an email to the principal, Jason Rowland, informing him of which class periods she would use to teach creationism. “We will read in Genesis and them [sic] some supplemental material debunking various aspects of evolution from which the students will present,” Creamer wrote.
In another email exchange with Rowland, a parent had complained that a different teacher, Cindy Tolliver, actually taught that evolution was a “fact.” This parent complained that Tolliver was “pushing her twisted religious beliefs onto the class.” Principal Rowland responded, “I can assure you this will not happen again.”
Another email was sent by Bossier High School assistant principal Doug Scott to Michael Stacy, a biology teacher at that school. “I enjoyed the visit to your class today as you discussed evolution and creationism in a full spectrum of thought,” Scott wrote. “Thank you for the rich content as you bring various sources to bear in your curriculum.”
The Louisiana Science Education Act, passed by the state legislature in 2008, permits science teachers to use supplemental materials to “critique” evolution, opening a backdoor that these teachers are using, as intended, to teach creationism. Such lessons are allowed under this Louisiana law, but they are illegal under federal law.
“We know that one in eight high school biology teachers advocate for creationism, even though it's unconstitutional,” says Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education. “These emails make clear that many teachers are interpreting the Louisiana Science Education Act as allowing such unconstitutional and scientifically-misleading lessons.”
On April 22 the Louisiana Senate Education Committee voted on a bill to repeal the Science Education Act, referred to by many on both sides as the “creationism act.” This was the fifth vote since 2010, and legislators voted 4–3 to keep creationism in Louisiana classrooms.
In April, here at Slate, I published evidence that creationism was being widely taught in Louisiana schools. During the Education Committee hearing to repeal the Science Education Act, I provided that research to the chairman of the committee, Sen. Conrad Appel. It included a letter from more than 20 Ouachita Parish science teachers who said they were teaching the “discrepancies” of evolution. I guess Appel ignored the evidence, because he cast the deciding vote for creationism.
After the hearing I followed up with the Ouachita Parish school system to learn how the “discrepancies” in evolution were being taught. I obtained a PowerPoint about the origin of life that is used in Ouachita Parish Junior High School’s life science classes. It presents evolution as just a theory and says that theories are “possibly true” but “not known or proven to be true.” Creationism is also presented as a theory and given equal footing with evolution. Students are taught that the “[b]asis for creationism is founded in Genesis of the Bible,” and “Creationism relies on the claim that there is a ‘purpose’ to all creation known only to the creator.”
Louisiana politicians have supported the Science Education Act because they intended it to allow creationism in the classroom. Gov. Bobby Jindal, who signed the Science Education Act, said it was for creationism. “What are we scared of?” Jindal asked. State Sen. Ben Nevers said he sponsored it in the Senate because “creationism should be discussed when dealing with Darwin's theory." In April state Rep. Frank Hoffmann, a state House sponsor, confirmed the law was for creationism. The Ouachita Citizen reported that Hoffmann told it that Louisiana science curriculum policy “recommended a scientific discussion in the classroom of scientific theories including creationism and evolution.”
Legislators have used the act to pressure school districts into teaching creationism. In repeated emails to the Bossier Parish school district, state Rep. Thomas Carmody (who co-sponsored the Science Education Act) asked how the district was complying with his law. “I appreciate your expediting the confirmation of your district's effort to comply with the stipulations outlined in the Louisiana Science Education Act,” Carmody wrote.
School boards have also used the act to push for creationism. At a 2010 Caddo Parish School Board meeting, board member Steve Riall “said he knows the Governor has granted permission for districts in Louisiana to give equal value in teaching evolution and creationism,” according to the meeting’s minutes.
And creationism certainly is being taught in Caddo Parish schools. Charlotte Hinson, a fifth-grade teacher at Caddo’s Eden Gardens Magnet School, wrote a column for the Shreveport Times in which she declared: “My job is to present both [evolution and creationism]” because “God made science.”
In an email to a Bossier teacher, Hinson said that despite a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union warning against teaching creationism, she had the support of local lawyers, her principal, and the school board. The principal and school board “reminded me I did nothing wrong,” she wrote. “Times are getting harder and harder.......I feel the end is near. Be blessed!!!”
The Bossier Parish teacher exchanging emails with Hinson was Carolyn Goodwin, who teaches at Stockwell Place Elementary and is also a creationist. “Bossier [school district] has it’s [sic] problems but there are so many awesome Christians from the top down,” Goodwin wrote to Hinson. “We pray at school functions and probably break the law all the time!!”
Louisiana school districts are clearly breaking the law all the time, but the Louisiana Legislature still refuses to repeal the Science Education Act. These newly released emails, from districts across the state, show that this law is being used systematically to teach creationism in public schools. This puts Louisiana on a collision course with a First Amendment lawsuit.
I asked Andrew Seidel, a lawyer for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which litigates separation of church and state cases, about the legal situation surrounding the law. “It was clear when the [Science Education Act] was passed that it was just another shameful attempt to circumvent the First Amendment,” Seidel told me. He went on to warn teachers against teaching creationism, and said, “No state law, including the Louisiana Science Education Act, can shield public schools and public school teachers from liability for violating the U.S. Constitution.” Several separation of church and state advocacy groups, including the FFRF and the ACLU, have their eye on Louisiana.
All it will take is for one Louisiana parent or student to sue the state for endorsing religion in public school, and teaching creationism will become illegal again. But for the moment, because Louisiana politicians refuse to take action, Louisiana students are reading Genesis in science class.