The federal government filed notice Jan. 24 that it's appealing the Freedom From Religion Foundation's significant federal court victory declaring the "parish exemption" unconstitutional. Under the 1954 law, "ministers of the gospel" don't pay any taxes on salary designated as a "housing allowance."
U.S. District Judge Barbara B. Crabb for the Western District of Wisconsin issued a strong, 43-page decision on Nov. 22 declaring 26 U.S. C. § 107(2) unconstitutional. The case is FFRF, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker v. Jacob Lew, Acting Secretary of the Treasury Department and Daniel Werfel, Acting Commissioner of the International Revenue Service.
The appeal will go before the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago.
The law allows "ministers of the gospel" who are paid through a housing allowance to exclude that allowance from taxable income. Ministers may even use untaxed income to buy a home and deduct interest paid on the mortgage and property taxes — known as "double dipping."
The clergy benefit costs the government up to $700 million a year in lost revenue, and benefits not just ministers but their employer churches, which can pay ministers less because untaxed income goes further.
Christianity Today found that 84 percent of senior pastors receive a housing allowance ranging from $20,000 to $38,000 in added (but not reported or taxed) salary.
"I agree with plaintiffs that §107(2) does not have a secular purpose or effect," wrote Crabb, adding that a reasonable observer would view it "as an endorsement of religion."
At the time of the federal ruling, attorney Richard L. Bolton, representing FFRF, noted: "The Court's decision does not evince hostility to religion — nor should it even seem controversial." However, the decision set off "shock waves" in the clergy network.
Clergy are permitted to use the housing allowance not just for rent or mortgages, but for a wide range of home improvements, including maintenance and repairs. They may exempt from taxable income up to the fair market rental value of their home, particularly benefiting well-heeled pastors.
The 1954 bill's sponsor, Rep. Peter Mack, argued ministers should be rewarded for "carrying on such a courageous fight" against a "godless and anti-religious world movement."
All taxpayers are burdened by taxes, Crabb noted. "Defendants do not identify any reason why a requirement on ministers to pay taxes on a housing allowance is more burdensome for them than for the many millions of other who must pay taxes on income used for housing expenses."
Gaylor and Barker, as co-presidents of FFRF, are the primary plaintiffs. Crabb agreed they have standing to sue and are injured because FFRF designates part of their salaries as a "housing allowance," but they are not lawfully able to claim the same benefit "ministers of the gospel" are accorded.
"The clergy and churches have become accustomed to privileges and prerogatives from our secular government which are not only unconstitutional, but which don't play fair. The rest of us should not have to pay more taxes, because clergy don't pay their fair share," said Gaylor.
Barker, a former minister, now heads the volunteer Clergy Project, which helps clergy who have changed their minds about religion leave the pulpit. Barker said he knows hundreds of former ministers who agree with FFRF that "the housing exclusion is an unfair and unwarranted boost from the government and should be abolished."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is sticking to its guns that an unconstitutional Latin cross must be removed from the lawn at the Police Department, in Searcy, Ark.
FFRF first notified then-Police Chief Kyle Osborne about the violation in March 2013 after a citizen complained to FFRF. Since then, city officials have stonewalled the Madison, Wis-based nationwide group that advocates for state-church separation.
Another complaint letter went out Jan. 16 to City Attorney Buck Gibson to update him on the situation. The department failed to respond to the March letter, so a follow-up was sent. Current Police Chief Jeremy Clark claimed in a May 7 letter that "I have found no such display."
FFRF’s local complainant confirmed the cross was indeed still on display, and on Nov. 20, sent Clark another letter. He replied Dec. 2 that it was a moot issue because the cross was near his “private entrance.”
FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, in her letter to Gibson, cited multiple court cases relevant to the issue. She noted that Clark's contention that he has a private entrance somehow immune from constitutional scrutiny "is absurd and has no basis in fact or in law. The Searcy Police Department cross is not on Chief Clark’s private lawn," and is readily visible from the street.
Markert added, "FFRF renews its request that Police Chief Clark immediately remove the Latin cross from the lawn of the Searcy Police Department and/or direct the display be moved to a private location. If the chief is partial to the cross, he can certainly move it to his lawn at his own home. Once again, we ask for a response in writing so that we may inform our Searcy complainant of the action being taken by the city in this matter."
FFRF also sent letters Jan. 16 to Clark and Mayor David Morris about public comments attributed to them that were reported in the Daily Citizen newspaper.
Morris called Searcy (a city of about 23,000) a “Christian community,” and Clark reportedly said, “Christianity is part of our police department.”
FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor took issue with both of those statements. "As mayor, you represent all Searcy residents, including atheists, Jews, and other non-Christians. In other words, you were elected to represent the entire city, not just Christians."
To the police chief, they wrote, "Your department strives to 'perform our duties and responsibilities with pride, faith, hope, and dedication to our core principles and values as expressed in the Constitutions of the United States of America and the State of Arkansas.' . . . Making public statements that stress the Christian atmosphere in the department is insensitive, and alienates citizens who adhere to minority religions or who do not believe in any faith."
According to Clark's predecessor, St. Paul United Methodist Church placed the cross on city property in 2011.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has contacted the Office of the General Counsel of Oakland Unified School District in the wake of complaints it received over the proselytizing nature of a recent assembly at E.C. Reems Academy, Oakland, Calif., intended to honor Jahi McMath.
FFRF, a Madison, Wis.-based state/church watchdog, has nearly 20,000 nonreligious members nationwide and about 3,100 in California.
Jahi, the 13-year-old girl who has been declared brain dead after a tonsillectomy went tragically wrong, was a student at the charter school, which serves mostly disadvantaged children.
"What happened to Jahi is a terrible tragedy and all hearts go out to her suffering relatives and friends. But such tragedies are not an excuse to violate the Constitution," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a joint letter to Laura O'Neill, Office of the General Counsel, and Brian Reems, board president of E.C. Reems Academy.
FFRF is calling for an investigation into the assembly, attended by students as young as kindergarten, during which Principal Lisa Blair said "she tried to honor Jahi's family's wishes by telling students that their classmate may still be alive, even though doctors say she is legally and clinically dead," according to KNTV reporter Lisa Fernandez's story. FFRF has been informed that an investigative meeting reviewing the situation here will be held by EC Reems as a result of its letter.
"Students responded with an outpouring of faith," reported Fernandez. A death certificate has been issued.
Blair told the reporter, "Most kids are Christian here, and they believe that if you continue praying, there's always a possibility. The students understand the debate. They're just choosing spirituality over science."
Clearly, it's Blair who's choosing spirituality over science, said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, who maintains the children are too young to "understand the debate."
One of Jahi's friends, who attended the assembly, told the reporter, "The school told us that she's not officially dead yet. And we should keep her in our prayers. I still hope, and God has the last say-so."
FFRF's detailed letter of complaint said it's inappropriate for school staff to distribute 250 T-shirts to students saying "Keep Calm, Pray on" (also emblazoned with #TeamJahi") to students at the assembly. The letter said staff should be told not to wear the shirts during instructional time.
FFRF dismissed any argument that the assembly was voluntary. It involved young children, and students shouldn't have to excuse themselves from an assembly to honor a classmate in order to avoid inappropriate religious content.
FFRF wants appropriate disciplinary action and for the action to be part of the record when the charter school application renewal is examined, along with assurances that religious beliefs will not be further injected into the school day.
"The school is inflicting trauma upon tragedy by suggesting that it's within the power of Jahi's classmates to resuscitate her," FFRF charged.
"It's unscientific, unethical and irresponsible to suggest to a captive audience of impressionable, grieving students that wishful thinking can suspend natural laws, and even raise the dead."
After attempting to end the practice for several decades, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has persuaded University of Wisconsin-Extension in Madison to remove Gideon bibles from its 137 guest rooms.
In November, the complainant who encountered the bible at the Lowell Center on the UW-Madison campus complained to Madison-based FFRF, a state/church watchdog and the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics).
The seven-story conference center hosts events of up to 400 people and was used by the UW secular student group — Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics — to host a freethought festival last March.
Patrick Elliott, one of FFRF's five staff attorneys, took action, contacting UW-Extension: "When a government entity like the Lowell Center allows distribution of religious material to visitors, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message, in this case a Christian message."
UW-Extension indicated, after reviewing FFRF's letter, that all bibles would be removed from guest rooms by Dec. 1. Read the response.
Elliott called it a solid victory for state/church separation. "While private hotels may choose to put any type of literature they want in their guest rooms, state-run colleges have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion."
FFRF President Emerita Anne Nicol Gaylor first contacted UW-Extension in the 1980s and 1990s about the unconstitutional practice. Now 87, Gaylor responded, "It's satisfying to finally see this violation remedied."
While FFRF directs most of its energy to fighting infringements of the separation of state and church, it has also routinely asked the hotel industry to inaugurate "bible-free" rooms, just as hotels and motels offer smoke-free rooms.
FFRF Co-President Dan Barker commented, "We atheists and agnostics do not appreciate paying high prices for lodging, only to find Gideon bibles in our hotel rooms, sometimes prominently displayed, knowing they contain instructions, for instance, to kill 'infidels' and 'blasphemers,' among other primitive and dangerous teachings."
Gideon International exists, according to its website, to "win the lost for Christ, and our unique method is the distribution of bibles and New Testaments in select streams of life."
The organization does not allow women to be full members. Infamously, the society particularly targets fifth graders in public schools and brags about it on its website.
For more than three decades, FFRF has taken complaints about aggressive Gideon tactics and complicity by some school officials. Violations include principals openly permitting Gideon members to visit classrooms to distribute bibles and talk to children, to stand in the halls handing out bibles or outside the entrance as children leave.
Some of the worst cases have involved reports that representatives were pitching bibles to young children entering school buses from school parking lots, even on occasion shoving them through school bus windows.
For many years, FFRF has offered stickers for travelers to place on Gideon bibles: Gideon Exposed, details the reprehensible character of Gideon, namesake of the bible society (read Judges, chapters 6-9). The other label warns that "literal belief in this book may endanger your health and life."
A sampling of the voluminous crank mail recently received by FFRF, printed in all its grammatical glory:
Jesus Picture In Jackson Middle School: You know it is organizations like yours that make me see red... fuck you, your organization and everyone there.. our country is so fucked up because of people and groups like you. — Hank Talikka
your salries: Are you paid to keep God out of the American society? I’m guessing you are, as your activities of suing school districts, etc. require time and effort on part. Betcha I don’t get an honest answer! — Greg Simkovich, Laughlintown, PA
Sale Creek Middle School: Until you stand up and publicly denounce the teaching of any form of Islam in our public schools, you are nothing more than political agenda hypocrites. You are completely irrelevant. Go fuck yourselves. — James Veach, Georgia
Moral corruption caused by your organization: You are conducting a war on terror against Chjristianity! You are responsible for the moral decay of this nation. — Vittorio Luchi, Arizona
Troy University religious dorms: Are you idiots. This is total BS. Why are you doing this? What are you afraid of? If this was about porn, or weed, or anything else that destroys a society, you would be quiet. You people are bad!
— Larry Lestelle, Washington
Idiots: Is there a Freedom from Idiots group? If so, all y’all idiots need to join. Then maybe we can be done with your hate group. I other words, GO AWAY! And your parent group, Atheists, is a religion as well. Look up the definition for a religion. I’ll help you out, “a shared belief” Does that not describe you? It is like reparations for slavery. If a black person also has Caucasian blood, do they owe themselves money? I found out about your religion on a wall in the men’s bathroom, along side of the ads for a BJ in a parking lot. Both are wrong. — M. Pieschel, Fayetteville, TN
suing people of faith IS wrong: HOW does simply seeing a picuture of Jesus or a plaque of the 10 commandments on a wall “harm” you? It doesn’t. Thing is if an atheist hung a dirty picture of something on a wall and anyone complained you would argue your first ammendment free speech rights, but let a Christian hang something on a wall and all of a sudden those first ammendment rights are null and void. Your fight is as old as time itself. Good verses evil, and my ticket is on good (God). — Patty Hadley, Kentucky
freedom: I want to file a complaint against you guys. I am offended by your actions and think it best that all of you move to Kenya or somewhere in that region. You are a bunch of ignorant asses. But you do live in the perfect state to be ass holes. Have a wonderful life because after you are done here it will get very hot.
— Carlie, South Dakota
FFRF: Your website has made me very sad. I am praying for you. — Jan Cain, Carrollton, Georgia
beliefs: I see your group has raised its UGLY HEAD once again to impose your beliefs on others. I thought politicians were the lowest vermin on earth but you re right there with them.
— Jack Terrier, Virginia
you assholes: Why can’t you assholes mind your own fucking business instead of trying to shove your bullshit down our throats for something we do not believe in — john demirjian, new mexico
Yall are a bunch of crack pots: I am writing about something I seen about a pastor who said a bible verse & GOD six times when talking to students at Sale Creek Middle-High School. THAT IS OUR RIGHT TO SAY GOD AND TALK ABOUT A BIBLE VERSE IF YOU DONT WANT TO HEAR IT THEN LEAVE OR COVER YOUR EARS. Im 39 years old and when I grew up in school we said a daily prayer and said the Pledge. — Sharon Jenkins, Tennessee
5 Thousand Dollar Donation Enclosed: Here ya go. A nice shiny crisp 5 thousand dollar bill for you to play with. Oh wait, on that bill are the words, “In God We Trust”, opps, looks like you can’t use it after all. Sorry about yer bad luck. Heck. None of you can even touch cash of any kind if it’s US currency now can ya. HAHAHAHAHA! — Chuck Thompson
Jesus portrait at school: You have every right not to accept any God and not worship a Cross, Half-Moon or Star of David. For all I care, you may dance in robes around a fire pit and sing 70’s disco. Find your own private Hell. Shame on you! — David Baertsch, Plano, TX
Website bible quiz, WTF? I take this test and do pretty well, but when I get to the scoring, you insult me. Go fuck yourselves, assholes. yes, i did go to a parochial school, but I still scored an 18 on your test that had numerous trick questions. Until you becaome ACTUAL free thinkers, mainstream society is going to consider you for what you are: douche bag-weirdo zealots. Have fun hanging out with bill maher and Penn Gilette. — Erich Knox
Ohio Jesus portrait: Great Job! you cost a school system and their lackeys close to 100K Dollars. All for a widely distributed depiction of a religious icon. Please remember, my communist brothers, that the same religious icon will be waiting for you after you take your last breath, this time in person. — William Burns, Stuart, Fla.
Ohio school: Oh I am suffering severe and permanent damage from seeing a picture of Christ at the Ohio school you managed to sue. Give me a fucking break you losers. Why don’t you concentrate on real issues like poverty and hunger. Or get this, get a real job and support the economy. — Peter Tolley, California
Crank: Every Knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord !!!!!!!!11 Put that in your pipe and smoke it — Steve Johnson
Name: Dayna Elizabeth Long.
Where and when I was born: I was born in Urbana, Ill., in 1989.
Education: I graduated from the University of Illinois in 2011 with a degree in English literature.
How I came to work at FFRF: I was working at a software company but knew I wanted to be doing work that was more meaningful to me and would also allow me to spend more time volunteering for the National Organization for Women [Dayna is the newly elected volunteer president of the Wisconsin chapter of NOW]. When I saw that FFRF was hiring, I jumped on it.
What I do here: I’m an administrative assistant, so I get the mail, process sales orders, answer the phone, do some data entry plus a hundred other miscellaneous things.
What I like best about it: It’s really wonderful to work in an office where I can be very open about my atheism and also my politics without worrying about offending anyone. Also, everyone who works here is really bright and funny. I laugh all day long.
What sucks about it: Occasional long lines at the post office.
I spend a lot of time thinking about: Feminism, activism, politics and how my cats, Oscar and Sally, spend their time when I’m not around.
I spend little if any time thinking about: Answering a question like this.
My religious upbringing was: Zilch. My family started attending a Lutheran church when I was 15, but happily it was a short-lived practice.
My doubts about religion started: When I was pretty young. I can remember asking my mom if she thought God was real around the same time that I started asking why she and Santa Claus used the same wrapping paper. When I was in my late teens and early 20s and really growing into feminism, I became frustrated with organized religion’s attempts to impose its doctrine on everyone, especially on issues like same-sex marriage and reproductive rights.
When I moved to Madison after college, I started hanging out with UW’s student group Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics, which is when I became comfortable openly identifying as an atheist.
Things I like: My cats, chai tea lattes, nonfiction, incredible female leaders and great Wisconsin beer. Also blueberry danish.
Things I smite: Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, drivers who don’t observe pedestrian crosswalks and online dating.
In my golden years: I’ll have constitutional equality under the Equal Rights Amendment! I hope.
Arizona state Rep. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, caused a stir nationwide May 21 with his godless invocation opening a legislative session. This is his speech, edited for print, in acceptance of FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award at the 36th national convention in September in Madison, Wis. The FFRF award is reserved for public figures who make known their dissent from religion
First, I want to thank Freedom From Religion for its work in promoting the constitutional principle of separation of state and church and in educating the public on matters relating to nontheism.
I am honored to accept the Emperor Has No Clothes Award and join past recipients in telling it as it is when it comes to religion. I would like to take this opportunity to share with you all, the story of how I got quoted in the same article as the pope. I need to share this story with you because as defenders of freedom from religion, you deserve a firsthand account of what I can only describe as a culture of corruption.
I believe any prayer before public meetings becomes a litmus test that bars you from the norm, or at worst there’s the fear that if you don’t pass for the norm, your legislation will not be entertained or taken seriously. You can feel it in the indignation they presume and in the fear my colleagues have in losing legitimacy.
Prayer before public meetings ends up becoming a vehicle to deliver a politicized message demonizing and marginalizing entire groups of people. Despite efforts to rotate speakers of different faiths, the practice remains divisive and exclusionary for many who practice less common religions or no religion at all.
Removal of prayer before public meetings poses no threat to the secular nature of our government or society. Only those who gain their cultural capital through proselytizing on our government’s dime are fighting for this. And they are determined on preserving their “heritage,” or cultural capital, at the expense of democracy.
On the floor of the Arizona Legislature, I asked a body of publicly elected officials to forgo the assumed customs of a larger culture and not bow their heads [see sidebar]. I simply asked that they take one moment out of their day, that they look past the fact that we’ve spent months cooped up in a room that should have fit all our egos comfortably, engaged in challenging debates, with many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration.
I outed myself — my humanist understandings, my absence of a faith in a deity — at the risk of political capital simply by omitting a God from a simple yet compassionate, if I might say, invocation or prayer. I quoted Carl Sagan: “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”
I asked a room full of politicians, the majority conservative, to acknowledge our shared capacity for reason and compassion, our shared love for the people of our state, for our Constitution and for our democracy. And that we root our policymaking in these values that are relevant to all Arizonans, regardless of religious belief or nonbelief.
Fallout the next day
The next day, a colleague seated next to me, for the first order of business after reciting our allegiance and offering the prayer (but before condemning Obamacare, which is how we traditionally begin our political business), called for a “redo” of yesterday’s prayer, my prayer. And they did it.
I had offended him and his religion because my invocation did not invoke his god. Or to put it in more politically correct terms, I didn’t use empty, nondescript language. I chose to stand out.
That’s the parallel I’m honored to share with the “Emperor” short story by Hans Christian Andersen. The moral, as I see it, is don’t seek to blend in with everyone else. Don’t adhere to the empty attempts at misrepresenting your values to engage in your community or to engage in the public trust as publicly elected officials.
If prayer before any public meeting has anyone choosing to blend in and agree that they are doing good work while hiding their lack of faith, we’d be saying that the 20% of the population we represent isn’t worthy of the public trust.
Having politicians fear expressing their lack of beliefs only perpetuates the culture that keeps so many of us from coming out of the closet. If we continue to allow for a cultural practice like prayer before public meetings, we’ll continue to allow millions of Americans to feel disenfranchised from civic engagement because they don’t see their values articulated by their government representatives, community leaders, neighbors and friends.
At the very least, we need to be finished with prayer before public meetings so that the people who approach a governing body or official feel equal. Neutrality on certain issues is vital to the government process.
‘No religious test’
The First Amendment grants even politicians the right to free speech. I know because I have a line of tea party activists ready to quote the Bill of Rights to me when I get back home.
But across the country, courts have issued differing decisions on what is acceptable, starting with a 1983 Supreme Court decision [Marsh v. Chambers] that approved prayer before legislative meetings. They did this while also setting no boundaries, and courts have since disagreed on the specifics.
A 2008 appellate decision that applies to Florida, Georgia and Alabama upheld prayers at the Cobb County, Ga., Commission, which invited representatives of various faiths to participate. The prayers were predominantly Christian and often referenced Jesus.
A 2011 ruling says that prayers before legislative meetings in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia should be nondenominational and nonsectarian, using generic words that don’t refer to a specific religion.
Now the Supreme Court is set to hear this term a New York case to determine whether prayer should be permissible at government meetings. A decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway is expected by June 2014.
From my experiences, we need to move away from issues of free speech to issues of equal protection, or more specifically to the No Religious Test Clause of the Constitution, Article VI, paragraph 3: “[N]o religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
While prayer at public meetings isn’t administered as a test, my colleagues seemed to think I failed. And when they as the majority find their way into leadership positions where they have total control over the entire agenda, deciding what we talk about, when we talk about it and who gets to talk (and then determining whether any action comes from all our talking), I have to fear whether they see me as qualified to carry out the public trust.
That is the culture of corruption in which I was elected to do business. I knew about this before I got elected, so you don’t have to worry about me becoming jaded.
I want to end with the explanation of a quote I turned up awhile ago: “A person can never hope to be more than he is if he is not first honest about what he isn’t.” It probably has nothing to do with religion, but I take it seriously nonetheless and apply it when I can.
I am an atheist because I’ve found no faith in any deity from Thor to Zeus. I am so grateful for the work the people in this room have done to advance the separation of state and church, to educate communities, to build a culture that made it possible for me, as a state legislator from Arizona, to talk honestly about what I do and don’t believe in.
Together, we are in a position to go further than we ever imagined. We are standing at a moment in history where we truly can dramatically shift our culture toward feminism, environmentalism, human dignity and real liberty and justice for all by electing or reelecting more openminded legislators across our country. We even have a PAC now.
I will never stop fighting for my values, and these last couple of months have shown me that I am not fighting alone. Together, if we choose to be bold and speak the truth, if we choose to be champions of humanism, if we choose to seize this moment, we will win, and what we win is the infinitely precious dignity of all humanity.
Zack Kopplin, 20, received FFRF’s first Richard and Beverly Hermsen Student Activist Award of $5,000 for his impressive work to repeal a stealth creationism law in Louisiana. This is his acceptance speech, edited for print, given at FFRF’s 36th national convention in September in Madison, Wis. He’s now a history major at Rice University in Houston.
Thank you all so much for having me here so I can tell you about the fight for science in Louisiana and in the United States. My home state, Louisiana, is addicted to creationism.
In 1987, the Supreme Court threw out Louisiana’s first creationism law in the Edwards v. Aguillard decision, but the creationists never give up. When we passed the misnamed and misguided Louisiana Science Education Act back in 2008, we became repeat offenders. I won’t lie. It was really a pretty clever piece of legislation.
The act never once mentions creationism or intelligent design in order to dodge court rulings like Edwards, which said Louisiana cannot require that creationism be taught in public school science class, or the more recent 2005 case, Dover v. Kitzmiller, in which Judge John Jones ruled that intelligent design was creationism, too, just all dressed up in a lab coat and therefore still patently unconstitutional.
Instead, the law allows and encourages teachers to use supplemental materials that “critique” evolution and other political controversies, including climate change and cloning. The overwhelming majority of scientists support evolution theory. This is only a controversy to Louisiana politicians.
But, because of this law, in our public school science classes, teachers can bring in materials that say the Earth is only thousands of years old. Throughout the bill and the talking points of proponents are references to the importance of teaching critical thinking.
Of course, you don’t need a law to teach critical thinking in a science class — that’s the whole point of a science class! Critical thinking is at the heart of the scientific method. You only need a law if you want to sneak unscientific and unconstitutional creationist supplemental materials into public school classrooms.
When he first introduced the bill, Sen. Ben Nevers let the cat out of the bag, explaining that a creationist group, the Louisiana Family Forum (which, by the way, claims to have drafted and promoted the LSEA) asked for the law so creationism could be taught in public schools.
“I’ve got no problem if a school board, a local school board, says we want to teach our kids about creationism, that some people have these beliefs as well,” Gov. Bobby Jindal told NBC’s “Education Nation.”
When the state Board of Education originally wrote the rules implementing the LSEA, they specifically outlawed teaching creationism and intelligent design. The creationists went berserk and had those rules scrapped. The Livingston and Tangipahoa Parish boards went so far as to use the law to justify making creationism a mandatory part of the curriculum. This isn’t just a Louisiana issue, though. Attacks on science come from all around the country, and the damage from science denial falls on all Americans. A prime example is Texas, which is currently adopting new science textbooks. And because it’s Texas, creationists are attempting to undermine these biology books.
The state board has appointed “expert reviewers” to issue corrections to the textbook publishers. The issue is these experts are not experts. They’re Discovery Institute fellows and members of the Creation Science Hall of Fame.
They have sent reviews to the textbook publishers, insisting they revise their books to say there are no transitional fossils and to include the “creation model” based on “biblical principles.”
We need to stand up and launch a movement to fight for science. That’s what I’m fighting for. We’re standing up in Louisiana, we’re standing up in Texas, and we need to stand up across the country.
Forging a coalition
When I was a senior in high school, I realized I had a voice and a moral responsibility to use it and started a campaign to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act. The first thing I did was contact Dr. Barbara Forrest, one of the country’s foremost leaders in fighting creationism. She happens to live just 25 miles down the road in one of our creationist hot spots, Livingston Parish.
We met and started working on the repeal. The first step was to find a legislator courageous enough to sponsor the repeal bill. The LSEA passed with only three votes against it.
I met with Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, one of the brave three, and she agreed to author the repeal legislation. Rep. Walt Leger agreed to handle our legislation when it got to the House.
When this campaign began, everyone told me that we didn’t have a chance, that we were taking on powerful interests and it wasn’t worth it. Our first repeal bill was defeated 5-1 in committee. We came back for a second try the next year and lost again. This year we lost again in a 3-2 vote but made progress and will be back again next spring. And we’ve done some incredible things along the way. We protected Louisiana’s biology textbooks and now defeated four attempts to throw them out.
Nearly 40% of living Nobel laureate scientists have joined us. Major science organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science are on board. Public servants, including the full New Orleans City Council, and tens of thousands of others, have joined our cause.
Despite our progress, our issues have taken a new turn for the worse. It seemed like Governor Jindal had already done as much damage as he could to science education with the LSEA. Wrong.
The state has now passed a program that takes money from public schools and gives vouchers to creationist schools. The program has been ruled unconstitutional, but the Legislature could find a way around it.
I documented 20 private schools which blatantly teach creationism or use creationist curricula that could end up receiving over 1,300 voucher slots, which were initially slated to receive $11 million in taxpayer funds annually. They’ve since decreased the amount to about $4 million. If they manage to keep the program going, they’re going to be funding millions more.
I found schools that teach “Our position on the age of the Earth and other issues is that any theory that goes against God’s Word is in error” and others that call scientists “sinful men.” I found a school that requires students to “defend creationism through evidence presented by the Bible versus traditional scientific theory.”
There be dragons
Mother Jones magazine picked out the 14th craziest lessons taught in creationist schools. My favorite was the textbook that claimed dragons were real (they were dinosaurs with chemicals in their noses, and they lived with humans).
By the way, one of our state legislators who voted for the voucher program now says she opposes it because she didn’t realize Muslim schools could potentially qualify for vouchers. She thought religious schools meant only Christian schools, and for good reason. Besides all the creationism and dragons, there’s even a school slated to receive $360,000 a year led by a man who calls himself The Apostle and teaches prophecy.
As the New Orleans Times Picayune opined, “Vouchers have turned out to be the answer to a creationist’s prayer.”
We’re giving public money to private schools that will fail our students through teaching creationism and bad science. But again, all of you know that this isn’t just Louisiana craziness.
I’ve found that over 300 schools across the country are teaching creationism and receiving tens of millions or quite possibly even hundreds of millions in public money. I found schools bringing students to the Creation Museum and calling evolution “the way of the heathen.”
This fight may be long and it may be hard, but as President Kennedy said when he launched the moon mission, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
We need a new science revolution because our generation faces unprecedented challenges to our way of living and to our survival as a species. Our population continues to climb, but the amount of clean water and living space we have is stretched thin. Our climate is growing increasingly extreme. We’ve discovered “super bugs” which are resistant to antibiotics.
Earth is experiencing a rapid decline in biodiversity, especially in our oceans. The recent meteorite that exploded over Russia is a sobering reminder that we could be faced with a killer asteroid in the near future.
I know these threats sound like science fiction, but they are real and my generation will have to address them. The way to overcome these challenges and ensure the continued long-term existence of our species is through investment in rapid scientific innovation.
We have a choice of two futures. In the first, we keep on our present track. This is a future where science funding continues to stay stagnant or decline. In this future, we teach creationism and climate denial instead of science. In this future, we fall to these threats.
I have a vision where we invest $1 trillion in science in the next decade. Science funding offers a massive return on investment, over 30%. And the great thing about funding science is that what we discover, unlike a tax cut, never sunsets. Unlike a road, it never needs to be replaced or repaved. What we discover will be with us forever.
I have a vision where we teach evolution, not creationism. Where we teaching about radio carbon dating rather than Noah’s flood. Teach climate science, not just plain denial science.
I have a vision of humanity harnessing wave energy and revolutionary sustainable technology like algae fuel. I have a vision where we discover how to turn off cancer cells and even aging.
When I was a freshman in high school, when my dad ran for Congress, I didn’t recognize I had a voice and that my voice had power. I didn’t recognize that with this power, came great responsibility. I have a responsibility to serve my country and my species. We all do.
We have the power to launch a scientific revolution to overcome the challenges we face and we all have a responsibility to do that.
This is our generation’s movement. We need a Second Giant Leap for humankind!