06/01/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Profiles in (Evolutionary) Courage, Part 1: Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin

It's never easy to stand up for what you believe.

It's even harder when you find yourself in the midst of the seemingly never-ending battle between evolution and creationism with so many powerful people, including the folks responsible for your continued employment, taking the side of the creationists.

But some people have met this challenge and have made a difference. In this on-going series, I want to introduce you to regular people who have made just such a difference. They've made a difference in the quality of the science education our children are experiencing, in reaffirming that religion and science can comfortably coexist, and in demonstrating to all of us that it is possible to make a powerful statement in support of evolutionary biology. These people have made a difference despite the personal risks they've faced - and they deserve our praise for their actions, actions I hope will be emulated around the world.

In a terribly sad twist of irony, the first heroic person I'll introduce to you will have to be known only by her first name! As she explains it, "I am going to ask you to not use my full name or identify my school/district. I may not be sounding very brave, but something like this came up last fall with Obama's speech to school kids and we were advised to not go public with our opinions. (Many of us were appalled that students needed to have a letter of consent sent home first before we could show Obama's speech.) On the other hand, I don't really care if people connect the dots and identify my story. I think there is something called a Constitution that lets me speak my ideas. You can call me Denise and say I teach in Indiana."

What did Denise do? Let's start at the beginning.

Denise is a high school biology teacher and last year she thought it would be fun if her students wished Charles Darwin a happy 200th birthday! You wouldn't think that a simple act like that would be a big deal. But Darwin scares people and school administrators often prefer to avoid any conflict even if it means limiting educational options.

Denise's high school has a closed circuit television station that broadcasts a couple of minutes of "news" and "commercials" to students every morning. Like many of her fellow teachers, she filmed a segment that was less than a minute in length. Her segment simply had her students singing happy birthday. No commentary, no hidden message, no attacks on religion - just happy birthday.

When the birthday clip was to be aired, she was informed that it was too controversial and wasn't permitted. It was too controversial to wish Charles Darwin a happy 200th birthday!

As Denise explains it, she was infuriated. "I felt that the teaching of evolution was being threatened in my school. I didn't want to believe that my school could be like the terrible stories you hear where the teaching of evolution is totally stifled, and it was frightening and INFURIATING that it could be happening at my school!"

It would have been easy for Denise to do nothing, but that isn't in her nature. After all, she signs her e-mails with the following quotation from Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Knowing she was in the right, especially since the "Indiana State Standards for Biology" have evolution at their core with the subject representing about twenty-five percent of the material to be covered, she turned to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the country's only organization fighting full-time to ensure that evolutionary theory is fairly presented to schoolchildren.

The good folks at NSCE got back to Denise immediately and together they created a document entitled "Evolution and the Indiana State Standards: A Vital Part of a Comprehensive Science Education." She presented the document to her school administration and fellow teachers and is convinced that a repeat of the censorship she and her students experienced won't happen again - in her school.

She's also taken her experience and her document on the road to tell her story to other teachers. In fact, I met her recently at a conference at which we both spoke. She is passionate about biology and recognizes that evolution is central to a sophisticated understanding of the subject. She is equally passionate about being respectful of her students but knows that such respect doesn't mean that she should present them with anything other than the best modern science has to offer.

We live in a bizarre world where someone like Denise has to stand up to defend her students' right to wish Charles Darwin a happy birthday. But we do and she did. And for that, Denise deserves our praise. Because of her actions, students in Indiana are more likely to be well educated about modern science. Finally, because of her actions, all of us are more likely to understand that, despite those who want to pit their religious views against science, there doesn't have to be a conflict. Religion and science ask different, and largely non-overlapping, questions about the world. When we remember those distinctions, both fields are healthier, and we can focus on teaching our students science in science classes and laboratories without fear.

Thank you, Denise.

***If you know of someone who has, at some personal risk, taken a bold stance about evolution, please let me know, either below with a comment or by contacting me personally.