The next Religious Freedom question?
We’ve been talking a lot about religious freedoms in the post-Hobby Lobby world. Almost all of these arguments have centered around sex — either a woman’s choice to engage in sex for non-procreational reasons, or a person’s sexual orientation. (Or, more specifically, the degree to which others have to interact with those two things in their businesses.) However, what is happening in Louisianaia, while but a new chapter in a very old story, seems to me to be ripe fodder for the next series of religious freedom talking points.
This week Slate’s Zac Kopplin published some findings after obtaining school district emails from Louisiana’s Bossier Parrish though a FOIA request. Kopplin was following up on the aftermath the passing of 2008’s Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA). The controversial law allows for public school science teachers to bring in supplemental materials that are critical of science. More specifically, the bill’s proponents promised it would allow countering evidence to be heard about evolution and global warming. The bill was, in its way, a rather brilliant maneuver by social conservatives to co-opt the language of science to its cause. After all, those that touted science were always saying the discipline relied on critical thinking about itself — why were those people so afraid of putting their money where their mouth were? Critics, of course, worried that the law was little but a Trojan Horse intended to allow creationism to be taught as science.
The results of Kopplin’s labors may or may not have proved those critics right. We don’t really know from his reporting, which frankly is both terrible purposefully sensational. On May 7th of this year, for example, Airline High School’s biology teacher informed her principal that
[the] students will actually be doing most of the presenting. We will read in Genesis and them some supplemental material debunking various aspects of evolution from which the students will present.
In his Slate piece, Kopplin makes the insinuations that the teacher taught students that creationism was the Truth and refused to teach evolution at all; in fact, the email supports neither insinuation. Likewise this email that simply states that a parent thanks a teacher for “the rich content as you bring various sources to bear in your curriculum and having everyone engaged in learning.” My high school biology teacher spent a day on creationism as well — to completely and thoroughly debunk it as science, even while adding that if your faith pulled your heart in that direction he had no personal problem with that. The emails given at Slate as “proof” that creationism is being taught would be equally applicable to my science teacher’s methods as they would to a Family Research Council guest lecturer. The only example that strays from this formula is actually somewhat worse, as Kopplin selectively edits this email to make it appear that Airline’s principal has assured a parent that evolution being taught in the classroom “would not happen again.” In fact, there were several things from the parent’s email to which the principal might have been referring; the most likely one being an alleged rule by the teacher that students needed to bring in their cell phones for recycling in order to receive an A grade. Which isn’t to say that Kopplin isn’t right. He might well be, and teachers in Louisiana might well be asking kids to open their Bibles to Genesis and praise Jesus every time they walk into science class. Who knows? Not the reader, because Kopplin hasn’t taken the time to make his case without using slight of hand.
Still, despite Kopplin’s lazy sensationalism — or the fact that he seemingly can’t be bothered to take the time to pick up the freaking phone and spend two freaking minutes to freaking talk to the people he’s reporting about — it can’t be denied that many school boards, administrators, teachers, and parents alike (not just in Louisiana, but all over the country) have it in for the teaching of science that contradicts literal interpretations of scripture. And let’s face it, now that it’s been reported as such by Kopplin what’s actually been happening in Bossier Parrish is pretty much beside the point. It’s officially Culture War™ fodder now.
What I’m most interested in seeing (other than science classes being used to teach science and that not being a controversial thing, but hey, you can’t have everything) is how this plays out on the Right, and to what extent Religious Liberty is brought it as the argument for having public schools teach religion in science classes. Especially now, a year away from a Presidential election, when the primaries are just staring to take shape.
The establishment wing of the Right hates having to deal with the evolution issue, obviously. It makes their team look bad in the eyes of independents, and it frays the ties of those moderates that are still within its folds. When you see people like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio get asked if they believe in evolution, you get the sense that they are dying to say, “Oh course I do. What kind of ignoramus do you take me for?” But they can’t, of course. They wouldn’t dare. It would be political suicide with those they’ve come to rely on for their grassroots support. In fact, I suspect that even the Huckabees and Santorums of the world know this, and would be happy to avoid the question all together.
The Religious Freedom argument seems to have a momentum of its own within the Right’s base now, and is being used as a rallying cry for almost any battle they’ve lost in courts, elections, or mainstream public opinion. Hell, much of the base already thinks of science as a competing, state-sectioned religion. That the secularists religion is taught in public science classes while theirs is outlawed feels like the kind of Do-We-Look-More-Like-MLK-Now? brand of movement conservative victimhood itch that the base won’t be able to resist scratching.
And in a way, it’s actually kind of the perfect Religious Freedom debate to have. There isn’t any tactical pretense with it, no “I want to be able to say I don’t like X but don’t want to look intolerant so I will sayI don’t like Y.” There’s a kind of purity about it I find refreshing: I believe they Bible says X, and so I think all the kids in my town should be taught that X is true and any science that contracts it is a Lie regardless of what other families believes, and because I believe this anything less than ruling in my favoris an attack on my Religious Freedom.
I kind of hope it happens.
 Which strikes me as being highly implausible, but also rather par for the course.
There’s something about the universe of parents that take the time to write “very concerned” emails to public school administrators about school content that overlaps greatly in the Giant Venn Diagram of Batshit Crazy. It’s why when you hear stories in the news of, say, teachers showing porn to kids and talking about making money shots onto prostitutes’ faces you’re pretty safe assuming that the story is a result of a slow-day news room trying to make ratings hay combined with a parent that’s off their meds.
 I swear, this whole New Journalism thing is going to give me an aneurism.