As a Jewish-agnostic Unitarian, I was a gefilte fish out of water when we moved to Birmingham, Alabama when I was 10. But there was nothing that made me feel more out of place than when I was forced to pray every day before lunchtime. It was illegal at the time, though the Alabama state legislature soon took care of that.
Praying was unconstitutional nonetheless, you may say. You would be right, yet Alabama passed a statute that authorized a moment of silence for “meditation” the next year, in 1978. This was understood to mean prayer, but that wasn’t good enough, apparently, so in 1981 the legislature amended the law to read “meditation or voluntary prayer.” The prayers in my elementary school were neither silent nor voluntary when it was still illegal, and that’s how the law meant it to remain. It was intended as a subterfuge to slip prayer back into the public schools, though it was in my school already.
Sure, I could’ve asked to be excluded. And then the kids would’ve had a chance to inform me of the error of my ways with their fists after school. I was already being bullied daily, as a Yankee outsider. Indeed, I was so afraid that anyone would see me not praying that I mouthed the words. In my mind, if I didn’t say the words out loud, I wasn’t really praying. Don’t tell me that school prayer is harmless to nonbelievers. Okay, so you maybe wouldn’t.
Every day before we headed off to the cafeteria for lunch, we would recite in unison, “Thank you, Lord, for our daily bread. God is great and God is good. And we thank him for our food. Amen.” I always wondered why we should be thanking him for the stale rolls and rubbery mystery meat we would be choking down.
I thought it was just my teacher forcing religion on her students, but the next year, emboldened by the new law, my new junior high homeroom teacher began class with a student reading a passage from the bible. I ducked down my head and prayed that I wouldn’t be called.
That law was eventually overturned in 1985. Lawyer Ishmael Jaffrey filed a lawsuit to prevent the Mobile, Alabama school district from leading his children in prayer and bible reading, after numerous requests. His children were harassed and ostracized—my very fear—and he received threatening phone calls. But Jaffrey got the last laugh; the Freedom From Religion Foundation awarded him the very first Freethinker of the Year Award, inaugurated to celebrate his accomplishment, which not only helped his own children, but children throughout America.
But I was long gone from Alabama by then. I had moved to Constitution-compliant California. But it was in Southern California that I first learned some children were taught creationism in their parochial schools. I had just told my friend Zina about my fossil collection when she mentioned that my specimens had died in Noah’s Flood. (As an aside, I should point out that most of my collection consisted of marine invertebrates. They should’ve been happy as clams during the flood. In fact, many of them were clams.)
“That’s not true!” I told Zina. “Where did you hear that?”
I stared at her, dumbfounded. I thought she had to be mistaken. “I don’t understand how they could’ve taught you that.”
“It’s right here in my science book,” she protested, handing it to me. “See?”
I flipped through it until I landed on cartoonish illustrations of dinosaurs and the Ark. “Well, it’s still not true. I can’t believe they’re teaching this in your school!” I was outraged. Until that day, I didn’t know creationism was taught as science in certain schools.
As an aspiring paleontologist, I explained to Zina about evolution and fossilization. I also told her that the things in her textbook weren’t what kids in my science class learned. I doubt I changed her mind. After all, would you believe your 12-year-old friend versus what your teacher taught you
But youth didn’t stop Zack Kopplin, who began his lonely quest to overturn the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), nicknamed the Creationism Act, when he was 14. Well, lonely except for the fact that he went on to write about the fight in Slate, the Huffington Post, and the Guardian. And then there was the time he was the youngest guest ever on Real Time with Bill Maher. Msn.com called Kopplin “the Doogie Hauser of political activists.” You could call his crusade quixotic except Don Quixote didn’t get half as much press.
Say hello to the next generation of secular activists.
The LSEA is one of two “teach the controversy” laws that have been passed in the US (so far), along with a similar law in Tennessee. They purport to foster critical thinking by encouraging students to debate the scientific merits of evolution. This is, of course, a fig leaf for their true intention, which is to allow teachers to teach creationism as a legitimate and equal alternative “theory” to evolution. Genesis as science book. Sometimes they dispense with evolution altogether.
In 2010, Kopplin, then a high school senior, testified in front of the Louisiana State Legislature in support of a law he helped draft that aimed to overturn the LSEA. He presented a mountain of doggedly uncovered documentary evidence proving that schools were in fact using the law as a backdoor to creationism. Well, duh—that was its intent. As Louisiana Governor (and fortunately ex–presidential candidate) Bobby Jindal said in an interview, “I’ve got no problem if a school board, a local school board, says we want to teach our kids about creationism.”
The law was defeated.
Since then, Kopplin and Louisiana State Senator Karen Carter Peterson have rolled out a series of repeal efforts. Each, in turn, went down like ducks in a shooting gallery. In April of 2015, there was yet another attempt at repeal. Kopplin produces more evidence. Ping. Science loses once again.
My favorite example from Kopplin’s April testimony, as he wrote about in Slate, came from an email between two teachers allegedly attempting to teach critical thinking by coming up with this prospective fill-in-the-blank question.
Name an evolutionary change that would support both the Big Bang Theory and evolution. The answer? Snake leg nubs.
Vestigial legs and organs are indeed excellent evidence for evolution. Why would snakes have vestigial limbs if their ancestors didn’t evolve from lizards? Did God make an oopsie? Was he unclear on the concept of slithering? Or did he realize the design flaw after the Adam and Eve incident?
Since no evolutionary change could possibly support an astrophysical theory, I can only suppose this was meant to be a joke, made by snickering teachers who think the idea of evolution is laughable. That’s right, God forming Eve from Adam’s rib makes so much more sense.
Unfortunately, no Ishmael Jaffrey has yet come forward to challenge the LSEA in court. As Kopplin wrote this June in Slate:
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.
Jaffrey had the fortitude to challenge the authorities in Alabama, and he won. I wouldn’t bet against Zack Kopplin and the forces of reason in Louisiana either.
Meanwhile, children are being taught, as Zina was, that dinosaurs didn’t make the cut on the ark. Kopplin also wants to overturn the state’s school voucher program, which funds schools teaching that the Loch Ness Monster not only exists, but disproves evolution.
I think that lesson only proves that in some people, brains are vestigial organs too.