Educational Swamp: In Louisiana, Scientific Literacy Remains A Flashpoint

Hinson slammed the articles for treating creationism as an unproven theory, and evolution as fact. “That is strictly opinion,” she wrote.

Creationism continues to make headlines in Louisiana, where a science teacher is under investigation for an unfortunate letter to the editor. Charlotte Hinson, who teaches in a Caddo Parish public school, wrote to the Shreveport Times after that  newspaper published articles favorable to evolution.

Hinson slammed the articles for treating creationism as an unproven theory, and evolution as fact. “That is strictly opinion,” she wrote.

It gets worse. “I am a fifth-grade teacher,” she added, “and am appalled at how both of these authors’ viewpoints share a similar view of teaching evolution, a ‘higher power,’ no matter who or what they may be, being taught in classrooms, yet leaving intelligent design and creation discussions out.”

Hinson went on to assert that her students are “disturbed” when they hear they evolved from apes (something the theory of evolution doesn’t claim, by the way). “I teach at a magnet school, and in large numbers, they (the students) always, always say, ‘I didn’t come from an animal. God created me in a unique way; I matter more than an animal; I’m special,’” she wrote.

To Hinson, her students’ personal beliefs are evidence that creationism does merit a place in public classrooms. That sentiment directly contradicts the law, but reality doesn’t deter her in the least.

“My job is to present both (creationism and evolution), tell what I personally believe, only because they ASK, and they always, always ASK, and let them decide, but I will never ever teach what goes against so many of these children’s beliefs, morals and what their parents have worked so hard to instill in their hearts,” Hinson wrote.

As a science educator, it’s not Hinson’s job to impart religion to her students. It’s her job to teach scientific facts. Scientists—and the courts—have been clear: creationism is anchored in religion. It doesn’t belong in science class.

Hilariously, Hinson tries to appeal to the Constitution to make her case. In closing her letter, she stated, “[I]t is legally within any educator’s constitutional right to answer any child’s question honestly, not with the intention to sway, but to be authentic.”

She’d also like you to know that she has “many” friends, “who are Christian ethics attorneys, prosecuting attorneys, and more who will be glad to remind you that if a child asks, you are free to respond.”

It’s sad that these friends neglected to remind her that since cases like Edwards v. Aguillard and Dover v. Kitzmiller, she’s required to teach evolution, and only evolution, to her students.

If they had, they might have spared her from her current fate. The ACLU wrote an open letter to the Caddo Parish School Board, requesting an investigation into Hinson’s teaching practices. The board complied with that request, and released a statement affirming their intention to adhere to the Supreme Court’s rulings on creationism in the classroom.

The Hinson drama isn’t an isolated incident for Louisiana. The Sabine Parish School Board has been hit with an ACLU lawsuit for multiple constitutional violations that include the teaching of young earth creationism in science classes. The state’s voucher program is under fire for funneling public funds to private schools that teach creationism, and in 2008, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the Louisiana Science Education Act, which attempts to subvert the law by allowing teachers to include “supplementary” materials that are critical of evolution. 

It sounds like creationism is a serious problem in the state. History would say that as well.

But someone needs to tell that to James Varney at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. In a recent column, Varney insisted that Louisiana doesn’t really have a creationism crisis.

“Darwin's theories aren't hockey sticks, and while there are smart people who take issue with some or all of his thinking there isn’t any serious movement I know of to remove evolution from schools,” he wrote.

Varney needs to get his head out of the sand. Given Louisiana’s political climate and repeated efforts to remove or water down instruction about evolution in public schools, his assertion simply isn’t credible.

And it’s not just Louisiana. In school districts across the country, AU and others have tracked coordinated attempts to insert religious dogma into science classrooms. We’ve seen it in Texas, for example, where creationism advocates nearly succeeded in fighting scientifically accurate science textbooks for students—and where roughly 12,000 students in a publicly funded charter school system learned creationism instead of science.

It’s unrealistic to expect the Religious Right to cease its efforts to push dogma in the public sphere. And if you support scientific literacy, it’s unwise to underestimate their diligence.

At Americans United, we certainly take the fundamentalist Darwin deniers seriously, and we’ll continue to oppose their campaign to turn our schools into training grounds for the culture war.