In the News: Gay Rights, Bullying, and the “Homosexual Agenda”

Thanks again to Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center for drawing our attention to Missouri’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

This bill, Missouri House Bill 2051, would prohibit teachers in public schools from discussing homosexuality with their students.

The impetus for the bill comes from a widespread belief in Fundamentalist America that public schools push what Fundamentalists call a “homosexual agenda.”

Understandably, non-fundamentalists see bills like this as an attempt to limit rights for gay people.  One Missouri activist called this bill “a desperate tactic by frightened, bigoted, cynical individuals who are terrified at the advancement the LGBT community has made.”  Other interweb voices blasted the move as “moronic legislation” by the “elected bullies” in the Missouri legislature.

I agree with the sentiment expressed by these anti-2051 activists.  This Missouri bill, like other bills that seek to control teachers’ ideological performance, promotes a poisonous educational atmosphere in which the best teachers are forced into cynicism or subversion.  Meanwhile, the bulk of public school teachers trudge along in a bland mediocrity, avoiding any topic that might have potential interest or relevance in students’ real lives.

But I wonder if opponents of the Missouri bill understand that the polemic strategy they use actually reinforces the notions of their Fundamentalist opponents.  Here’s what I mean:  The most common defense of discussing sexual orientation openly and frankly in public schools is that such discussions can help limit bullying.  Defenders of the rights of gay people, especially of gay students in schools, point to the dangerous and even fatal bullying of gay students as the threat of gag rules like HB 2051.  To attack HB 2051, gay-rights activists wrap their assertion of rights for homosexuals in the language of a wider, faddish anti-bullying campaign.

In doing so, they confirm the suspicion of anti-gay activists from Fundamentalist America.  Such activists warn of a creeping “homosexual agenda.”  Such an agenda, Fundamentalists warn, focuses on using public schools to promote an idea that all sexual orientations must be considered equal.  A central trait of this “homosexual agenda” in public schools, as this CitizenLink (an offshoot of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family) video emphasizes, is that the homosexual agenda is “sneaky.”  [This video is just under ten minutes long, but well worth the time for those who hope to understand the thinking of Fundamentalist America.]

Fundamentalists warn that homosexual activists will wrap their true agenda in other causes.  And, when gay-rights activists point to bullying as the main reason to oppose 2051, they add more legitimacy to this Fundamentalist claim.

Let me be clear here: I am not in support of 2051.  But arguing that this is a bullying issue, instead of a gay-rights issue, is exactly what Fundamentalist America expects of gay-rights activists.  I suspect a better understanding of Fundamentalist America would allow gay-rights activists to avoid playing into Fundamentalists’ hands in this way.  Using the broader issue of bullying to promote fuller equality in public schools ends up strengthening Fundamentalist arguments, not weakening them.  Equality should be enough.  That is, gay-rights activists and others should keep it simple: Public schools must be places where every student, teacher, parent, staff member, and administrator feels welcomed and valued.  Regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or other distinction.  This is sufficient reason to oppose Missouri’s 2051 and similar bills.  Saying that gay students must have equal rights only because they might otherwise be bullied muddies the issue.  It fuels Fundamentalist fears that a “homosexual agenda” is being foisted on public schools, hidden in common anti-bullying campaigns.



In the News: Tennessee Two-Step

Tennessee’s lawmakers recently passed a law that—according to supporters—will allow teachers to work with more academic freedom.  It will encourage students, supporters insist, to explore ideas beyond the surface.  Opponents argue that the new law is only a sneak-attack by creationists and intelligent designers.  The law speaks in the language of academic freedom, opponents say, only to mask its true creationist intent.

The law itself claims to want to “help students develop critical thinking skills.”  Since the teaching of “some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy,” the law asserts that Tennessee teachers need clarification and assistance in teaching such issues.  The law mandates that school districts allow and encourage teachers to teach such controversial issues.  The law states that “teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.”  Finally, the new law notes that this law “shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine.”

In presenting the issue as one of academic freedom, Tennessee lawmakers apparently hope to overcome constitutional objections that have overwhelmed other anti-evolution laws.  The inspiration seems to have come from the Discovery Institute, a think tank dedicated to promoting the teaching of intelligent design.  In 2007, the Discovery Institute offered a similar-sounding model Academic Freedom bill.

Tennessee is not the first state to enact such a law.  In 2008 Louisiana lawmakers passed a similar “academic freedom” law.  Even earlier, in 2001, then-Senator Rick Santorum inserted a non-binding note into the No Child Left Behind Act that recommended teaching a full range of ideas whenever “controversial issues” were taught.

The Tennessee law has attracted more than its share of journalistic attention because of the easy connection to the 1925 Scopes trial.  The editors of the New York Times, for example, began their objection to the Tennessee law by intoning, “Eighty-seven years after Tennessee was nationally embarrassed for criminally prosecuting the teaching of evolution, the state government is at it again.”

Nearly all the news coverage of the new law insists on connecting it to the famous 1925 trial.  Coverage in USA Today and the Huffington Post offer a sample of the way every journalist seems obliged to mention Scopes.

However, as perspicacious observers have noted, this new law represents something very different from the 1925 event.  Today’s laws demonstrate a remarkable shift in the strategy and nature of anti-evolution activism.  As Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center pointed out, today “the curriculum shoe is on the other foot.”

Haynes is right.  The power in public schools has shifted decisively.  Anti-evolution activists today do not try to ban evolution from public schools.  Rather, anti-evolutionists these days struggle to insert wedges into school curricula.  They hope to create opportunities for teachers and students to question the scientific claims of evolution.  At the time of the Scopes trial in 1925, anti-evolutionists had a much different agenda.

In my book Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era, (coming soon in paperback edition, pre-order today!), I explore the ways so-called “anti-evolution” laws in the 1920s included much more than simply the teaching of evolution or creation.  The laws themselves, including Tennessee’s 1925 Butler Act, usually preserved a special role for Protestant theology in public schools.  Other bills considered “anti-evolution” made much more sweeping claims.  In 1924, Representative John W. Summers of Washington successfully inserted an amendment banning “disrespect of the Holy Bible” among Washington D.C. teachers.  In a similar vein, one so-called anti-evolution bill in North Carolina (1927) actually would have banned any teaching that would “contradict the fundamental truth of the Holy Bible.”  A proposed bill in West Virginia cut an even broader swath.  That bill would have banned the teaching of “any nefarious matter in our public schools.”  In Florida, a 1927 bill hoped to prohibit teaching and textbooks that promoted “any theory that denies the existence of God, that denies the divine creation of man, or that teaches atheism or infidelity, or that contains vulgar, obscene, or indecent matter.”

These bills were about more than just prohibiting evolution. They asserted ideological and theological control over public schools.  Public schools, in the vision of these bill’s supporters, ought to do more than just ban evolution.  They ought to be purged of any notion that might challenge the traditional evangelical morality of students.
Today’s laws are also about more than the teaching of evolution, but in a very different way.  Rick Santorum’s non-binding rider to NCLB was more about making a statement about the nature of science, culture, and education than about transforming education.  It didn’t and couldn’t actually change the way teaching happened.  Some observers have suggested that Tennessee’s law will also not change a thing.

But such laws do change something.  For one thing, laws like the ones in Tennessee and Louisiana demonstrate the political power of anti-evolutionism.  These laws show that significant numbers of voters in those states agree with this kind of cultural statement against the claims of mainstream science.  Laws like these also tell us something about the ways schooling is controlled.  If mainstream scientists cannot simply decide what will be the best sort of science education, then we can see that schooling is not simply a neutral institution in which knowledge is disseminated.  Rather, laws like this show clearly that knowledge is political.  Schools do not simply teach what is true.  Schools teach what culture decides children should know.

Ignorance and Evolutionism

In a recent commentary, First Amendment Center pundit Charles Haynes noted that teacher “neutrality toward religion cuts bothways.”  He examined two recent court cases. In the first, math teacher Bradley Johnson had been forced to remove pro-Bible, pro-Christianity banners from his classroom.  In the second, history teacher James Corbett had been accused of anti-Christian, anti-creationism bias in his lectures.  However, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that Corbett had not done anything to infringe upon the First Amendment rights of his religious students.

Haynes made the salutary point that such court decisions reflected an unfair court bias against religion.  He argued, “In my view, the 9th Circuit was right to bar promotion of religion in the classroom. But fair is fair. If religious people are to accept that their faith cannot be privileged in schools, then they need to be assured that hostility to their faith will not be tolerated, either.”

But the Corbett case deserves a second, and even a third look.  Court documents noted that Corbett had sent home letters to the families of students in his Advanced Placement European History class.  He had explicitly warned students and their families, “Most days we will spend a few minutes (sometimes more) at the beginning of class discussing current events . . . . Discussion will be quite provocative and focus on the ‘lessons’ of history.  My goal is to have you go home with something that will provoke discussion with your parents.” In this letter, which the accusing student and his family received and acknowledged, Corbett
insisted that all students “may offer any perspective without concern that anything they say will impact either my attitude toward them or their grades. I encourage a full range of views.”

In addition, the course description for the Advanced Placement European History class, designed and tested by the College Board, mandated the inclusion of such topics as “[c] hanges in religious thought and institutions,” “[s]ecularization of learning and culture,” “[s]cientific and technological developments and their consequences,” and “[c]hanges in elite and popular culture, such as new attitudes toward religion, the family, work, and ritual.”

Seen from this perspective, it would be irresponsible of Corbett to refrain from challenging the creationist views of students.  Such ideas are inherently challenged by the history of the Reformation and Scientific Revolution.

But Corbett was more than an earnest historian hoping to spread enlightened ideas in his discussions of the Enlightenment.  The court record indicates that he was a dedicated and determined culture warrior.  Almost twenty years previous to this case, he was embroiled in another creation/evolution case at his high school.  A science teacher at the school had been accused of teaching creationism as science.  The school had demanded that the science  teacher, one John Peloza, refrain from teaching creationism.  Peloza sued the school and Corbett as adviser of the school newspaper for five million dollars.  When the school attorney advised Corbett to refrain from making any further derogatory comments about Peloza or
creationism, Corbett refused.  As Corbett recalled, “At that point, I stood up and said, ‘I’ll tell you what. I will sign a statement giving you — you do not have to defend me, but I will not leave John [Peloza] alone to propagandize kids with this religious, superstitious nonsense.’”

The goal to avoid propagandizing students and to bravely defend against attempts to do so is a laudable one.  But Corbett then fell into a very similar trap.  His discussion of science clearly took an excessively hostile, anti-creationist tone.  He used the language of the anti-creationist movement, as when he disparaged the notion of a literal six-day creation as
being as ridiculous as the notion that a spaghetti monster that lived behind the moon had created the universe.  That language, as the lawyers for the aggrieved student pointed out, came from ardent anti-creationists.  Creationist students and their families were familiar with such accusations.  They had heard such things, and they connected it, reasonably enough, to an attack on their religious beliefs.

Some of Corbett’s other classroom statements from the court record also indicate the creation of a resolutely hostile environment for a creationist student.  Consider the following examples:


[T]hink how humbling it’s going to be, you know,

whenall these people who have been talking about

Adam and Eve and creation and all of this stuff for

all that time when eventually something happens,

and they find out that there are people on another

planet, six billion light years away, who don’t look

like us, worshipping huge geckos. (Students laughing.)


How do you get the peasants to oppose something

that is in their best interest? Religion. You have to

have something that is irrational to counter that rational

approach. No problem. . . . [W]hen you put on

your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.


It’s okay for religious people to, you know, or a

magician (inaudible). There may be a distinction, but

there is no difference. What was it that Mark Twain

said? “Religion was invented when the first con man

met the first [fool].”


This kind of language goes beyond treating history or science in an authentic way.  These
quotations, along with Corbett’s history, suggest a sustained bias against creationist belief, or even against any deeply held religious belief.

Let’s be as clear on this point as possible: Teachers must be allowed, and even encouraged, to make provocative statements about religion and science.  They must challenge students to examine their own beliefs and articulate their reasons for those beliefs.  But a teacher should never accomplish those goals by belittling, humiliating, or demeaning students.  Not only is it cruel, it is also ineffective.  As in this case, it merely forces students to retreat to a wholly defensive posture.  It does not draw them out to think deeply about science, history,
religion, and their personal beliefs.

I don’t know James Corbett.  But my hunch is that he would not want to belittle students or
discourage them from learning about science and history.  My hunch is that he is intelligent, brave, and self-sacrificing.  My hunch is that he is so deeply entrenched in his own position on evolution and creation that, like Richard Dawkins, he cannot imagine that an intelligent, informed, well-meaning person could possibly believe it.  From that perspective, there is no more harm to be found in mocking creationism than there would be in mocking flat-earthers or other kooks.

The problem is not only that James Corbett—and those like him, whether teachers, journalists, scientists, or involved citizens of other professions—showed sustained hostility to religion.  The deeper problem, in my opinion, was that he displayed an utter ignorance of the harm he was inflicting.  He hoped to be controversial and thought provoking.  He hoped to be humorous andengaging.  But his jokes and disparaging tone proved deeply offensive to at least one of his students.

The best parallel here is not the Bradley Johnson case, in which a teacher displayed Biblical and religious slogans in his math classroom.  The better parallel would be Michael Scott, the loudmouthed, offensive boss from TV’s “The Office.”  Scott told all sorts of offensive, sexist,
racist jokes.  When challenged, he would just throw up his hands and smile and say, “I didn’t mean to offend anyone.  I thought it was funny.”  Some people on either side of this evolution/creation divide are just that ignorant about those on the other side.  They don’t understand how people could really be offended to have their deepest religious beliefs mocked.  They don’t understand how deeply offensive it can be to compare belief in a creative God to belief in a giant spaghetti monster.

The deep irony is that some crusades against ignorance fail to consider their own deep ignorance about the people they hope to enlighten.