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Profiles in (Evolutionary) Courage, Part 4: Bringing Sanity to Louisiana Schools

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At the Democratic National Convention in August, 1996 Christopher Reeve said "So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable."

Today his words could refer to the efforts of Zack Kopplin, a high school senior from Baton Rouge (LA) Magnet High School. Zack has set his sights on overturning a 2008 Louisiana law that permits creationism to creep into public schools under the cover of scientific openness. The law in question, Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), professed to be about improving science education but it encourages teachers to bring supplemental materials, including those attacking evolution and promoting creationism, into their classrooms.

There are a number of factors that make Zack's dream appear absolutely impossible to achieve. First, when the bill landed on Governor Bobby Jindal's desk, he signed it despite overwhelming advice to the contrary from a host of national scientific organizations. Second, the bill's passage through the Louisiana legislature was a sight to behold. Indeed, the senate passed the bill unanimously without any debate after it had cleared the house by a resounding 94-3 vote. Finally, the bill's loudest supporter was Louisiana Family Forum, a group "affiliated with Focus on the Family" and whose mission "is to persuasively present biblical principles in the centers of influence on issues affecting the family through research." By all accounts, Louisiana Family Forum is a major political force in Louisiana.

But it is just possible that this tenacious 17-year-old will succeed. By some measures, he's already moved from the impossible to the improbable. Indeed, when Louisiana's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) took up the issue of purchasing new biology textbooks for the state this past year, the Louisiana Family Forum thoroughly politicized the issue by demanding the purchase be halted because the proposed books were "biased toward the theory of evolution." Zack jumped in and began a campaign to ensure that his fellow students had access to the best textbooks available. He spoke out in favor of high quality science education even while the Louisiana Family Forum and some big name legislators wanted "alternatives" to evolution included in science texts.

Against all odds, Zack prevailed. The BESE voted 8-2 in December to move forward with the purchase and much of the credit was given to Zack and his efforts. The Baton Rouge Advocate's editorial praising the vote began by asking the provocative question, "The newest giant-killer in state education policy?" They then answered their question by introducing Zack Kopplin.

Zack's relentless march toward repeal came closer to a reality recently when State Senator Karen Carter Peterson said that she was on board and planned to introduce legislation authorizing repeal. Obviously, there's a great deal more work to be done, but Zack is developing into an articulate spokesperson for his cause while recognizing the realities of building coalitions.

He's focusing on "kids, clergy and businesses," believing that by bringing these three diverse groups together he will be able to demonstrate how important it is for this law to be repealed. The kids are the next generation of voters who are dismayed that LSEA has the potential to gut their education while making a scientific laughingstock of the state. The clergy are religious leaders who understand that creationism, rather than being science, is something being promoted only by a narrow religious minority. The clergy also fear that all religions will suffer if they are defined by the most extreme. The business leaders are those who recognize that LSEA, and by extension Louisiana, is viewed nationally as being thoroughly anti-science. High tech companies are likely to stay away and the state's convention business is already down due to science and educational groups opting to hold their meetings elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, some creationists have begun to attack Zack personally. A writer in the Shreveport Times, for example, said that Zack was "a AA battery in a megawatt world." To his credit, Zack brushes off all such personal criticism and stays focused on his message about the importance of high quality science education. "If you reject evolution, you reject all of science."

Zack doesn't consider himself to be brave. Rather he says he's simply out to correct a grievous wrong that was foisted on the people of Louisiana. "When LSEA was originally passed, Louisiana Family Forum told legislators that the bill was not about creationism. The legislators trusted them, but actions in Livingston Parish have shown how the legislators were tricked." This past summer, after the curriculum director for Livingston's public schools claimed that LSEA allowed the district to present "critical thinking and creationism" in science classes, board members responded enthusiastically, with one asking, "Why can't we get someone with religious beliefs to teach creationism?" and another adding, "Teachers should have the freedom to look at creationism and find a way to get it into the classroom."

Brave or not, Zack Kopplin deserves our praise. Not many among us would be willing to take on the formidable forces in Louisiana promoting creationism. In the face of such opposition, Zack is a realist. "I believe we can pass repeal this year, but if not, I know that overturning this law will become inevitable as more and more people learn what it's about."

Christopher Reeve would be proud of this young man.
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This is the fourth in the "Profiles in (Evolutionary) Courage" series. The first focused on Denise, a high school biology teacher who stood up for her students. The second told Al's story, the personal cost he paid for helping to have the United Methodist Church endorse evolution. The third introduced the thousands of clergy members who promote the teaching of evolution in our schools. If you know of someone who you think deserves to be profiled, please let me know.

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