One day in science class in 2014, C.C. Lane, then a sixth-grader at Negreet High School in Sabine Parish, Louisiana, came across a fill-in-the-blank question he didn’t know how to answer:
“ISN’T IT AMAZING WHAT THE _____ HAS MADE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
The answer was “Lord.”
Lane’s teacher, who had included the question on a test, also routinely told students that “evolution is impossible” and that the Bible is “100 percent true,” according to a lawsuit later filed by the ACLU of Louisiana, which was eventually settled.
Louisiana remains one of three states that protect teachers who bring religious ideas into the classroom. The states have all passed “academic freedom” laws inspired by Seattle-based think tank the Discovery Institute that allow the teaching of creationism and climate denial in schools’ curricula. Although the Discovery Institute calls itself a secular organization dedicated to promoting “thoughtful analysis,” critics say it’s been pushing a Christian agenda under the radar for more than a decade.
Since Donald Trump’s election and his appointment of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — who once called her work in education reform helping to “advance God’s kingdom” — a new wave of bills with verbatim ties to the Discovery Institute made inroads in statehouses across the country. Three of the bills had never come so close to becoming law.
“That kind of changed the landscape for the Discovery Institute and other religious-right groups,” said Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor who studies creationism and church and state issues at Southeastern Louisiana University. “They now see opportunities that had been foreclosed to them prior to the election.”
In most states, teaching religion in public schools violates the separation of church and state. But “academic freedom” laws label established science, like climate change and evolution, “controversial issues,” which opens the door for teachers to offer alternatives, like climate denial and creationism.
“They now see opportunities that had been foreclosed to them prior to the election.”
Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee all have academic freedom laws on their books inspired by the Discovery Institute. This year, similar legislation was introduced in South Dakota, Texas, and Oklahoma. Though the bills didn’t pass, they gained more support than ever before. All three also took language directly from a mock bill the Discovery Institute posted online in 2007 with fill-in-the-blanks for state names and sponsors. The same key clause appears in each of them: that teachers can’t be prohibited from discussing “the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories,” like evolution and global warming. Over 70 academic freedom bills introduced in state legislatures since 2004 follow a near-exact word structure.
The Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, the program responsible for the mock bill, states its mission as advancing “the understanding that human beings and nature are the result of intelligent design.” It’s a pseudoscientific theory that an intelligent entity — in other words, God — created the universe and everything in it. Yet the Discovery Institute insists it’s a secular think tank. “For the record, our model legislation explicitly forbids any attempt to use the law to promote religion,” spokeswoman Sarah Chaffee said.
“What [the Discovery Institute is] really doing is trying to cover up what they’re really all about,” said Frank Ravitch, a law and religion scholar at Michigan State University. “They’re trying to make it seem like it’s not about religion, it’s not about creationism, it’s not about intelligent design — [but] that’s the goal.”
Zack Kopplin, an activist and journalist from Louisiana, has seen plenty of evidence that creationism is taught in public schools throughout the state, which passed its academic freedom law in 2008. He leaked emails from Louisiana teachers, school board members, and parents in 2015 that detail schools using Genesis as “supplemental material debunking various aspects of evolution.” And one fifth-grade teacher wrote in an op-ed that she’ll never teach children that they evolved from apes. “God made science, and unlike many adults, these kids KNOW that,” she wrote.
While the Discovery Institute’s most recent tax forms aren’t publicly available, 2015 saw the highest ever revenue from contributions and grants: $5,773,002. That’s a jump of more than a $1 million from the year before. From 2011 to 2014, revenue had been decreasing alongside a stagnation in states adopting the institute’s mock bill.
The new money last year came alongside a presidential candidate who vowed to “protect Christianity.” After his election in November, Trump even named a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, Bill Walton, as a transition-team member for the Treasury Department.
For her part, Betsy DeVos has poured millions of dollars from both her own and her mother’s foundation to the Christian group Focus on the Family, which has worked with the Discovery Institute to pass academic freedom legislation in the past. One of Focus on the Family’s religious-right affiliates, the Louisiana Family Forum, provided the legislative muscle for passing Louisiana’s academic freedom bill in 2008. The Discovery Institute and Focus on the Family also co-produced one of the main educational videos about intelligent design, Unlocking the Mystery of Life.
The idea of teaching intelligent design has another powerful ally in the White House: Vice President Mike Pence, who in 2002 called intelligent design the only theory that “provides even a remotely rational explanation for the known universe.”.
“Now that we have recognized evolution as a theory, I would simply and humbly ask, can we teach it as such, and can we also consider teaching other theories of the origin of species?” then-congressman Pence said in a speech to the House of Representatives. And the same year he became a senator, now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the separation of church and state “unhistorical and unconstitutional.”
SEE YOU IN COURT, KID
Along with a favorable conservative political climate, the Discovery Institute’s carefully worded tactics are a key factor in the recent adoption of its mock bill. For example, the bill makes no mention of the words “creationism” and “intelligent design” and only permits, rather than requires, disparagement of evolution and global warming. Section D also makes it clear that the law “shall not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine.”
That could make judges reluctant to rule against the laws as a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, according to Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education. “They’re going to say, ‘No, the only thing where we’re allowed to take account of is specifically what they said on the record with a straight face about their purpose,’” he said.
Since their adoption, none of the academic freedom laws have faced a direct legal challenge. In fact, the Discovery Institute was caught pushing a religious agenda only once — in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, one of the most high-profile legal cases ever about teaching evolution in 2005. According to the case, the Discovery Institute had advised a Pennsylvania school board that required teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution.
In its decision, the federal court called out the Discovery Institute’s religious agenda. “ID’s [intelligent design’s] backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class,” Judge John Jones wrote. “This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst, a canard.”
Even if future cases can prove the laws in Louisiana, Tennessee, or Mississippi also have religious intents, that likely won’t be the end of the fight.
“I would guarantee you if this gets struck down because of its connection to the Discovery Institute, some new think tank will come up that doesn’t have any sort of supposed connection,” Ravitch said. “And they’ll have some new proposed bill after. They’re not going to give up.”