Teachers: You can be punished if you teach evolution

The other day, a science teacher remarked that a student who had previously declared herself to be a creationist, and who's parents had previously expressed concern over the teaching of evolution, was suddenly all talky-talky and engaging the teacher in more or less polite and friendly discussion about the topic, coming to visit the teacher outside of class and everything.

I thought at the time, "That's unusual. But it does happen."

What I wasn't thinking is that a recent court decision supports the idea of a teacher who teaches evolution to christians, who does not cave when the christians complain about it, can be reassigned, fired, or otherwise be harassed and have the backing of the courts. I wonder. Was this student acting on instructions? Does the creationist community, and they do talk to each other, have a plan to try to trap a few science teachers, to get them fired, for not bowing to their religious demands? Probably not. Probably, I'm just being paranoid. But just in case, if you are a science teacher, you need to know that a federal court just decided that you can be punished if you teach evolution. At least in North Carolina.

Way back in 2005 a young girl was subjected to the teaching of evolution by her teacher, Pamela Hensley. In science class, no less. The girl was probably antagonistic and rude, and probably didn't get it, and probably did what a lot of creationist kids did: Got all dumb when it came time for exams, and thus, got a poor grade.

Naturally, her christian parents complained on the grounds that the teacher was "antagonistic and rude when her beliefs are challenged by true 'Christian' students." The school investigated and found no ground for complaint, but the parents persisted, demanding an apology, demanding that the teacher be transferred to different duties, and, of course, demanding that the curriculum be revised in order that their religious beliefs thereafter be forced on to the students in the public school classroom.

The teacher was in fact asked to sign a written apology, but since it contained blatant untruths, she refused. She was then transferred to other duties.

Creationists: 1
Sanity: 0

In 2007, Hensley filed a complaint in local court. which was moved to District federal court. under the first and fourteenth amendments, the North Carolina Constitution, and various statutes including the 1964 Civil Rights act. A few days ago, Judge James C. Fox essentially dismissed the complaints.

Yes, according to a North Carolina district federal court, if you are a science teacher, and you teach science, and a parent does not like that, you're fucked.

North Carolina. One of the STUPID STATES.

There is more information at the NCSE, here and here.

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My religion forbids children who have not yet gone through the sacrament of adult hood to hear, use, see or otherwise be exposed to the letter "e". I demand that the curriculum for all students be change to meet my religious beliefs. You have been dully notified.

Nooooo... not NC.
I missed this in my local news, maybe it wasn't there. Johnston Co. is very close to Raleigh, but it's to the east and more conservative. Ugh.

Any ideas what can be done here on a local level?

By Lynn Wilhelm (not verified) on 03 Jan 2011 #permalink

This is exactly why I changed my mind and won't be teaching high school biology in North Carolina when I've finished my degree.

Lynne, we don't know what is happening here yet. There are no indications as to if the plaintiff would be able to take this to a higher court or if she wants to. I would read over the documents (see links) and consider a letter to the editor. also, keep an eye on the National Center for Science Education web site. Become a member even!

Lou FCD: They win.

I was engaged in a couple of Climate Change "discussions" on fb today against a cohort of deniers. I realized, well, reinforce my realization) that most adults are scientifically illiterate. They are incapable of making an informed decision on science based issues as they do not and can not understand the science. So, they make a decision based on their ideals, then look for any kind of "expert" to support their ideals, usually an agenda based expert of course.

Losing these kinds of battles continues the devaluation of science education that is becoming increasingly important for our world's survival.

I'm Canadian, we have our own problems and battles up here, but not on your scale. I'm very much afraid you're f**ked.

By Fred Nurke (not verified) on 03 Jan 2011 #permalink

Talk about the Time Warp - it's Skopes all over again! Who was playing the part of Clarence Darrow?

By MadScientist (not verified) on 03 Jan 2011 #permalink

"You might be surprised at how your 'stock' could go up in our community if you choose to deal more harshly with Ms. Hensley."

MOONEY! See, accommodationism *must* work - even the religiotards say so.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 03 Jan 2011 #permalink


Canada does have a few problems here and there and is sadly not without its own stupid people occasionally, but it's amazing how us folks south of the border seem to have a lock on the title of Dumbf**kistan these days. I'm very sorry that we're bringing the average for the rest of the continent down.

I would love to be living in Vancouver--a spot of civilization with incredible restaurants, moreover--but alas! my wife's job requires us to live in the US. Damn shame: I like Hockey, French, multiculturalism, and I can even sing "Oh, Ca-na-DUH" with the best of them. Bugger. :(

Why not go on the offensive and adopt a "beat them with their own rule book" strategy?

1) Develop a Bible-based creation and biology self-study module.
2) Let parents opt their children out of the evolution module and into the creation module.
3) Send the little buggers to the library or study hall with their self-study materials while evolution is being taught.
4) Give them a wicked hard test on Biblical creation that would require them to actually have read and comprehended the material, including the conflicting creation accounts.

It would be a diabolical way to expose the little buggers to some of the idiocy and contradictions inherent in their faith while nominally satisfying their parents and the fundagelical community. Sample questions:

1) Name three "winged creeping things" that you are allowed to eat. (Lev. 11:20-23)
2) Name an animal that is identified as a "cud chewer" in the Old Testament but is not actually a ruminant. (Deuteronomy 14:7)
3) Explain the process for breeding spotted sheep and speckled goats. (Gen. 30:37-43)
4) Which was created first - plants or man? (Gen. 1:11-29 / Gen. 2:4-8)

Extra Credit
1) List as many four legged insects as you can name.
2) Explain why a ruminant is a "cud chewer". (We have to teach them at least one piece of real knowledge.)

I did take a look at the complaint. I'm amazed at the gall of the "Does" in regard to this teacher. They had a lot of demands -see page 4 of the statement of the case. They even demanded the school change "its curriculum to include a religious view of the teaching of science".
It sounds as if the principal (Stott) was an ass who didn't support his teacher.

It sounds as if their real complaint is that the teacher said that the bible couldn't be taken literally, which I would agree could be construed as a theological position. But it is true and can easily be shown scientifically.

In a letter to Hensley from the County Superintendent (Parker) he states that the complaints led to new guidelines for teaching evolution--I really wonder what these are and if the NCSE knows about this.

I'm not good at deciphering legalese, but in the analysis starting on page 9 it looks as if the big problem was that Hensley had refused to sign and disseminate a letter drafted by the principal--which she had previously agreed to do. That was what got her transferred--yeah sure. Hensley thinks her right to free speech (or to NOT speak through the letter) was violated. The court said that as she was asked to speak through this letter as a public employee, not a private citizen, it was not a free speech issue.

Hensley also claimed that there were state constitution violations. Apparently the court says Hensley has another option for redress for any state constitutional violations--why they couldn't address that in this case, I don't know.

She did "win" for her ADA claim that the job to which she was transferred was incompatible with her hearing impairment. But she didn't get any punitive damages for that.

By the way, my local school district, Wake Co. (right next to Johnston Co.) just got a new superintendent. He's a former military officer, has no education experience (unless you count his recent post as COO for Washington DC schools) and has been known to disparage Obama and thinks Palin would be a better president. We have been experiencing lots of upheaval with a new conservative school board determined to get rid of our socio-economically based school assignments. The changes in assignments haven't happened yet because one of the new members switched sides because she thought the others were rushing things. It's a mess here and the reason we got the super without education experience (or a PhD) was because the board voted to change the reqs for hiring. The new guy's name is Anthony Tata. By the way the vote to hire him was made when 2 board members weren't present--the missing two were Democrats and the vote was split along party lines. (Our former super resigned shortly after the new school board took over). See more here: http://www.wral.com/news/education/wake_county_schools/story/8824853/

By Lynn Wilhelm (not verified) on 04 Jan 2011 #permalink

From http://ncse.com/creationism/legal/hensley-v-boe; "The parents wrote that it was their intention "to rid our school system of Ms. Hensley who forces "her 'Alternative Live [sic] Views' on children who have proven they don't subscribe to the same beliefs as her.""

So, the unlettered shall be the final arbiters of science education?

Coming soon, Homer Simpson for Education Secretary.

From the articles, the principal had backbone, but the school district collapsed. Shame on them.

It sounds as if their real complaint is that the teacher said that the bible couldn't be taken literally, which I would agree could be construed as a theological position. But it is true and can easily be shown scientifically.

If you look through the comments on this blog on posts related to this topic, you will see a lot of well meaning and effective looking advice on how science teachers can acually grapple with issues of creationism in the public middle school or high school, reasoning against literalism in the bible, dealing with specific creationist claims having students to projects that pit their creationist beliefs against data.

You will also see in most or all cases me saying "NO, don't do that. Just tell the student that this is not something we talk about, at all, in the science classroom."

Well, as a person with vast experience in this debate, published in the NCSE journal, and with several advanced degrees from an Ivy League university, all I have to say at this point is: Nanny nanny boo boo, I told you so!

Actually, I wasn't thinking that the teacher should be discussing the bible in class, but the fact that the bible can't be literal could be a defense. Don't know how that would work legally though.

I agree with you Greg. I have learned (partly from this blog) that anything like a discussion of the bible should be kept out of a science classroom. It is, as I mentioned in my comment, a theological concept and therefore not applicable to science.

I taught horticulture in rural NC high school for one year. It was essentially a science class (much to the chagrin of some of the students) and I did touch on evolution. There wasn't anything in the curriculum about it, but it was hard to get around it. This caused a couple of students to assume I was atheist (I id'd as agnostic then) and precipitated some problems in class. I wasn't well prepared for that and wish I'd had resources like this blog way back then. I don't know if my non-renewed contract had anything to do with this, but I didn't pursue it.

By Lynn Wilhelm (not verified) on 04 Jan 2011 #permalink

Lou, I do agree with the "they win" comment, though it's not your job to go in and fix that - it's everyone's job.

Why Greg Laden is right: You don't say in teaching evolution "Which contradicts the Babylonian explanation for the age and origin of the Euphrates River." or "Contrary to the Norse origins of modern trees."

When you see part of your job being to contradict Biblical literal truth, they also win. That's the underlying reason a polite repetition of what Greg advises is the only answer, when kids bring up the Bible during a class on evolution, that threads the needle without extra work and fuss.

Bear in mind the legal ground that puts you on: the parents have to argue FOR shoehorning religion into science class.

The underlying story here, too, is a weak, fearful school administration and as Greg says, a stupid court.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 04 Jan 2011 #permalink

Two books I highly recommend are Richard Hofstadter's "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," and "Science on Trial: the Case for Evolution" by Douglas J. Futuyma. they should be required reading for ALL kids, whether home-schooled or done out in public, and for ALL teachers and administrators, parents, neighbors, well, in short, EVERYBODY.

i might have to talk about this shit on my own enviroblog, the "Hazard Hot Sheet." i've been teaching environmental science, safety, health, cleanup techniques, etc., for 20 years, and the depressing shortcomings in the average job-seeker's knowledge of science make me wanna puke.

ROFLMAO, "Evolutoin Denier" can't even spell it to deny it! if we could just send all those eedjits off in a poorly-designed spacecraft to go terraform Venus, the rest of us would finally have some elbow room.

ROFLMAO, "Evolutoin Denier" can't even spell it to deny it! if we could just send all those eedjits off in a poorly-designed spacecraft to go terraform Venus, the rest of us would finally have some elbow room.

I suspect most Social Studies curricula require students to demonstrate an understanding of communism, but I don't think anyone expects students to then stand up and profess their love of the mother land.

It's always astounding to me how creationists can be so offended by being asked to simply entertain an idea.

I know what an eedjit is because Julia made me read that book. I guess it's not as obscure as I had assumed.

Having once been a lawyer (paying fees to belong when I didn't practise got to be too much) and Canadian at that, I'll preface this by saying this isn't legal advice. Especially if it makes any sense!

That said, in the decision, the Judge decided that the proposed apology letter was analogous to a statement made by a spokesperson at a press conference. I think that is patently absurd. The Judge made no reference in his analysis to any specific aspects of the apology letter. If he had, he might have been forced to face the fact that the letter obviously, being in the first person being a big clue (all those "I"'s, eh), does not, on its face, purport to be an official communication from the school board but purports instead to be from Ms Hensley herself. It is not at all like what you'd expect from someone speaking on behalf of the board, saying something that will be taken by any reasonable person to be the views of the board and not necessarily the personal views of the person reading the statement.

The Judge does not appear to have considered whether a teacher's duties inlcude stating as their own personal beliefs what are instead the beliefs of the Board. You can imagine the furor if a Christian fundamentalist YEC science teacher (and, thanks to Mr Freshwater, we know they exist) in a state with decent science standards and texts were required by their Board to say they personally believed what was set out about evolution in the course materials.

The Ceballos case cited in the decision clearly involved a statement that was well within the scope of Ceballosâ duties and thereâs no trace of Ceballos having been required to state as his personal views what were the views of his employer instead. In the Urofsky case, those claiming their first amendment rights were being infringed were asserting a right to access (using state owned computers) materials to be used in the course of carrying out their employment. Neither of these bears any relation to a situation where a person is objecting to being required to make a statement, purporting to be her own personal views when it does not reflect her views.

It does not appear from reading the plaintiff's memorandum that they argued the wording and personal nature of the apology letter takes it out of the scope of a teacher's duties. Don't know if in the USA that would bar an appeal on the basis that it wasn't in the scope of duties for a teacher to gives as her own personal views those of the Board, but if not, I'd think an appeal worth serious consideration.

By Mike from Ottawa (not verified) on 04 Jan 2011 #permalink

Mike: Interesting. You should pay up your fees and join the legal team!

Thanks, Greg, but sniping from these distant sidelines only when I happen to feel like it is more my speed these days.

I'll be interested to see what John Pieret, of 'Thoughts in a Haystack', makes of this and will bring it up there if he's not spotted it yet.

By Mike from Ottawa (not verified) on 04 Jan 2011 #permalink


By Mike from Ottawa (not verified) on 04 Jan 2011 #permalink

problem is many years ago the Evolutionist decided their side of the equation was the only thing to be taught in the schools. So convenient to complain at someone asking to have creationism taught as well. Evolution is as much a religion as is creationism. They are theories and need to be debated equally. What is the big deal if one would disguss creationism? What is there to be afraid of and why trash those who want to compare the two. Where is your nutrality in this topic?

Your first visit here marge?

Suggest you educate yourself about the science, then come back.

By Lynn Wilhelm (not verified) on 04 Jan 2011 #permalink


Our neutrality on the issue of evolution v creationism is in the same place as our neutrality on the issues of whether the Earth is round or flat, whether the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun or the Sun and planets revolve around the Earth or, for that matter, our neutrality on the issue of whether 2+2=4 or 2+2=5. As convenient as neutrality on that last one might be to accountants, neutrality is not a virtue in science where one thing is, within the methods of science (i.e. the application of reason to evidence) demonstrably true and the other is, to the extent its claims are amenable to the methods of science, demonstrably false. Evolution is demonstrably true and creationism demonstrably false, to the extent creationism actually makes any testable claims.

Given that you have come out with the hoary old âjust a theoryâ business about evolution, thus demonstrating you know nothing about evolution (or science for that matter) other than that you donât like it, Iâm not sure youâll get the above series of comparisons.

I will go with good science and will leave it up to you to stand up for "nutrality".

By Mike from Ottawa (not verified) on 04 Jan 2011 #permalink

I we could get all the normal people out of California and send all the secualr oppressives TO california, the rest of us would flourish

Why, yes, why not trying an updated version (with "christians" this time) of the sakoku? Put all the fundies in one place, let them rule this closed territory for, lets say, 50 or 60 years, and then, when their economy is broken and their military obsolete, send the heathens with their godless technology and seculary oppressive grasp of logistics: This would make a fascinating albeit bloody social experiment.

By Laurent Weppe (not verified) on 05 Jan 2011 #permalink

Marge, Marge, Marge Marge ... you are a classic case.

@Gay Muslim evolutionary biologist:

Yes Laurent it would. That's the whole idea. Once and for all we would show you that capitalism and individual freedom and reward of success works over your idea of sicliast regimes running every aspect of someone's life and restricting success. Are you scared to try it and see who;s right?

Wait a minute: Why would I be afraid of the outcome? Did you somehow manage to misread my excessively obvious sarcasm and conclude that I was on the fundies' side?

By Laurent Weppe (not verified) on 05 Jan 2011 #permalink

@@Gay Muslim evolutionary biologist:

Hooooo, Now I understand: you thought that when I wrote when their economy is broken and their military obsolete I was talking about the secularists and not the fundies. I realize now that my first post can be misleading, so to make things clear, I meant When the fundies' economy is broken and the fundies' military obsolete.

By Laurent Weppe (not verified) on 05 Jan 2011 #permalink

Arg, I've been poed: I thougt that whoever Gay muslim evolutionary etc is was attempting some sort of sarcastic caricature of a fundie, turns out he is a fundie.

By Laurent Weppe (not verified) on 05 Jan 2011 #permalink

He just uses lots of sock puppets. Evolution Denier, Rumpleforeskin, etc. Can't even use a real pseudonym!

By Lynn Wilhelm (not verified) on 06 Jan 2011 #permalink

I can personally vouch that neither Marge nor I exist.

By Homer Simpson … (not verified) on 21 Jan 2011 #permalink

what is the difference between evolution and darwinsim

redwolf2: good question. It is complicated, and there are really no formal definitions to rely on. Different people will give different answers to this question, mainly because it is not of central concern in the science of Evolutionary Biology.

Darwinism usually means one of two things. 1) An evolutionary perspective applied to understanding biological processes, generally employing modern versions of the various theories (about five) that Darwin came up with; or the scientific revolution that brought that way of thinking to a central place in biology; and 2) any process that involves selection, which is only one of Darwin's idea. So, for example, some neurons, in developing brain tissue, grow and hook up but if they are not used, die off. That is sometimes called a "Darwinian process."

Evolution is the large scale long term diversification of life, including adaptation, drift, other changes in gene pools, the rise of co-evolutionary systems, etc. So in a way "evolution" is the thing we study and "Darwinism" is a key and central way of studying it.

A lot of people prefer "evolutionary biology" do "Darwinism" because although Darwin's theories as modernized are central to evolution he did not cover everything so the present day field is bigger.

Does that help?

"The girl was probably antagonistic and rude, and probably didn’t get it, and probably did what a lot of creationist kids did: Got all dumb when it came time for exams, and thus, got a poor grade."

I share your disgust and outrage, but unless you have direct evidence, "probably" doesn't count.

By XaurreauX (not verified) on 24 Mar 2016 #permalink

No, actually, the way it works is like this. If we have strong direct evidence of something, we say something like "This happened or that happened, based on what we know." But if you are generalizing or using an example informed by vast experience, but don't necessarily have evidence you want to mention when talking about a specific case, you use a word like "probably" as on "This or that probably happened."

That is what the word "probably" is for.

Now you know!