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Louisiana Teen Battles Religious Right Science Education

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By Sandhya Bathija

A Louisiana high school senior is on a mission to save science education in his home state.

Zachary Kopplin, a senior at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, wants to see the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act repealed, and he’s working with state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans) to garner support for a bill she plans to introduce in April that will do just that.

One of his first stops to rally the troops was the Darwin Day event put on by the Louisiana chapter of Americans United last weekend at a Unitarian church in Baton Rouge.

Kopplin told the audience the law is “embarrassing,” a characterization most civil liberties groups and scientists agree with.

When Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the measure back in 2008, Americans United warned that it was merely another attempt by creationists to slip fundamentalist religion into biology classes.

The law was pushed heavily by the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF), a Religious Right organization that promotes creationism and is an affiliate of the James Dobson-founded Focus on the Family. The measure allows teachers to introduce into the classroom “supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials” about evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning.

AU experts and our allies in the state knew the measure was made up of code language that would only serve to threaten the integrity of science education.

And sure enough, in November 2010, the LFF started to use the law to chip away at evolution and sound science standards by claiming the state’s biology textbooks give too much credibility to Darwin’s theory. Under the Science Education Act, they argued, science education must expand to include more than just the theory of evolution, but also “intelligent design,” the latest variant of creationism.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Textbook/Media/Library Advisory Council held a hearing to rule on these concerns. Kopplin testified in support of sound science textbooks.

“Louisiana students deserve to be taught proper science that will prepare us for success in the global economy,” he said. “Quite frankly, all the Louisiana Science Education Act does is create an unconstitutional loophole to sneak the teaching of creationism or intelligent design in public school science classes. When a school district does try to use this law for its intended purpose, it will quickly be shot down by the courts.

“So there is no need for this committee to try to jump ahead with such a costly and unproductive effort,” he continued, “one that will only embarrass our state and harm our students who need to be properly educated and well prepared for success in the global economy.”

Concluded Kopplin, “Please stand tall and endorse life science textbooks that teach real science rather than undermine it.”

Kopplin’s testimony and that of other supporters of sound science and church-state separation must have worked. The council voted 8-4 to recommend that the board adopt solid biology textbooks and disregard the LFF’s comments. In December, BESE followed through, voting 8-2 to approve these textbooks.

The Baton Rouge Advocatepraised Kopplin for taking on the fight against the LFF, which has the support of many influential people in the Louisiana political scene.

“It would have seemed, nevertheless, a mismatch: Young Kopplin’s earnest and articulate defense of science against the Family Forum, headed by the Rev. Gene Mills, one of the most powerful influences in the State Capitol these days,” the newspaper wrote.  “But as when David met Goliath, the young man prevailed against the Philistines.”

We hope Kopplin will have the same positive effect on the Louisiana state legislature when the bill repealing the Science Education Act is introduced in April.

It’s great to see a high school student so engaged in civic affairs. Getting the Louisiana legislature to do the right thing won’t be easy. But it’s inspiring to see Kopplin’s determination.

Keep up the good work, Zack!


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