Let me begin with a confession. Never once in my years of writing did I imagine being able to write about Charles Darwin and Hugh Hefner in the same essay.
From one perspective, though, perhaps the link between the two isn't all the difficult to envision. After all, they both spent a good deal of their professional lives writing and thinking about sex. But their respective foci were quite different. Darwin wrote about the consequences of sex -- about differential reproduction and the dramatic evolutionary impact that such a difference plays over time. Hefner wrote about the voyeuristic aspects of sex -- about the titillation associated with bringing human sexuality into the open and the large amount of money to be made by doing so.
What brought these two disparate figures together for me is an amazing Louisiana native I've written about before (here, here and here, for example!). He's Zack Kopplin and he just finished his first undergraduate year at Rice University. When he was a high school student in Baton Rouge he began a movement to repeal creationist legislation passed in Louisiana. He mobilized thousands of citizens, gained the support of numerous prestigious scientific and educational organizations (including The Clergy Letter Project, which I head) and, most impressively, he acquired the backing of 78 Nobel laureates in science. He also worked closely with Louisiana State Senator Karen Carter Peterson who had the good sense, and political nerve, to introduce legislation to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008.
Despite Zack's efforts, Peterson's motion failed to get out of committee last year, garnering only a single vote from the Education Committee, that of Democratic Senator Yvonne Dorsey. (Peterson was not on the committee and thus was not able to vote on her own motion.) Five other committee members voted against her. This past legislative session, Peterson re-introduced her repeal motion, it was again assigned to the Education Committee which she again was not on, and, while it again failed, there is reason to be hopeful. This time the initiative lost by a vote of 2-1 (Dorsey was not on the committee this year) with the vote in favor coming from Republican, Senator Dan Claitor. Additionally, four other committee members opted not to vote rather than vote against the repeal. Zack and Senator Peterson vow to be back next year. With bipartisan support, they might just be successful in their third attempt to ensure that Louisiana high school students are well educated.
So, Zack's efforts connect clearly to Charles Darwin. But what about Hugh Hefner?
Well, it turns out that Hefner founded the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation and that's the link to Zack. The Foundation's mission statement includes this sentence: "The primary purpose of the foundation is to support organizations that advocate for and defend civil rights and civil liberties with special emphasis on First Amendment rights and rational sex and drug policies."
The Foundation annually awards the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award and this year one of the recipients was Zack Kopplin. What's wonderful about this award is that it recognizes Zack's actions to safeguard the portion of the First Amendment that is often overlooked. When people think about the First Amendment they typically think about three of the freedoms guaranteed: freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom to assemble. Lost is the separation of church and state that the amendment also ensures.
Despite the fact that so many creationists claim that keeping creationism out of our public schools is an attack on their religious freedom, the U.S. Supreme Court and many federal district courts have concluded exactly the opposite. Zack's work falls squarely in the center of settled case law and it is fabulous that the Hefner Foundation recognized his efforts for what they are.
Rather than writing more about Zack and praising his articulateness, I think it would be more powerful to allow him to speak for himself. Take a look at the testimony he provided to Louisiana's Senate Educate Committee earlier this year to see why he deserved this award.
It's also worth putting Zack's testimony into a broader context. Compare what he had to say, and how well he said it, to the comments offered by Senator Mike Walsworth, a Republican who voted against the repeal effort.
Senator Walsworth and his allies have no trouble dismissing the voices of Nobel Laureates, prestigious scientific organizations, religious leaders and Zack Kopplin. They are neither intimidated nor swayed by such expertise.
Zack, too, and for good reason, is comfortable in these impressive circles. But his comfort knows some limits. "I'll be honest, politicians and Nobel laureates don't intimidate me, but going to the Playboy Mansion to receive this award does," he explained to me.