It was a rare, but telling, moment when U.S. Sen. David Vitter took to the Senate floor Oct. 17 to withdraw an earmark of federal money for a pet project in his home state.
Vitter, the junior senator from Louisiana, has spent years fashioning himself as a crusader on behalf of the so-called “values voter.” But that day, he was on the defensive and moved to yank a $100,000 allocation for the work of the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF).
Vitter had advanced the earmark to support the LFF’s alleged “plan to promote better science education.” The move spurred opposition from an array of public interest groups that pointed out the LFF advocates teaching creationism in the public schools, not science.
“The project, which would develop a plan to promote better science-based education in Ouachita Parish by the Louisiana Family Forum, has raised concerns among some that its intention was to mandate and push creationism within the public schools,” Vitter said, addressing his colleagues in the Senate.
“That is clearly not and never was the intent of the project, nor would it have been its effect,” he continued. “However, to avoid more hysterics, I would like to move the $100,000 recommended for this project by the subcommittee when the bill goes to conference committee to another Louisiana priority project funded in this bill.”
Earmarks, in which public funds are allotted to specific projects at the direction of senators or representatives, are exceedingly difficult to derail and they are infrequently challenged. Members of Congress often use them to reward political allies and curry favor with various voting blocs.
But after a summer in which Vitter drew national media attention for his connection to a woman accused by federal authorities of operating a prostitution ring in Washington, D.C., the senator was likely in no mood for a potentially contentious wrangle over a controversial earmark.
And even more importantly, Vitter’s earmark was being challenged by an array of civil liberties, religious, education and science groups led by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
In an Oct. 10 letter to all senators, the 36 groups decried the LFF’s work as promoting and “teaching creationism in the science classroom, even though uniformly prohibited by federal courts.”
In addition to Americans United, signers included the American Association of School Administrators, American Institute of Biological Sciences, American Jewish Committee, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Protestant Justice Action, the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network.
The Louisiana Family Forum is a state affiliate of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. It was founded in 1999 by Tony Perkins, now head of the Family Research Council. Its Web site states that its mission includes presenting “biblical principles in the centers of influence on issues affecting the family through research, communication and networking.”
The Vitter earmark for the LFF first came to light as the result of a report by New Orleans Times-Picayune writer Bill Walsh. Walsh discovered that the public funds would pay for a report issued by the religious group on ways to improve science education in the Ouachita Parish’s public schools. (In Louisiana, counties are dubbed parishes.) The newspaper noted the group “has long challenged Darwinian theories explaining the origins of life.”
As critics quickly pointed out, LFF is, in fact, a Religious Right advocacy group that seeks to undermine the teaching of science in public schools by arguing that evolution is controversial among scientists and that other theories regarding life’s origins should be explored.
Indeed, in 2006, the activist group successfully lobbied the Ouachita Parish School Board to adopt a policy obviously intended to undercut the teaching of evolution in public school science courses.
According to a “Family Facts” bulletin from the Louisiana Family Forum’s Web site, the school board adopted a “Science Curriculum Policy Resolution” that would guarantee “teachers the freedom to teach the full range of scientific evidence regarding controversial subjects like evolution, thus supporting public expectations that Darwin’s theory should be taught alongside scientific evidence both for and against it.”
It is a well-worn canard pushed primarily by Religious Right forces that evolution is “controversial.” In reality, the National Academy of Sciences and other authorities have repeatedly embraced evolution as the cornerstone of biology.
Americans United and allied groups noted in their Oct. 10 letter to the Senate that the Louisiana Family Forum has been a part of the Religious Right campaign to promote creationism and undermine the teaching of evolution in the public schools.
“Teaching creationism,” the groups argued, jeopardizes “students’ understanding of the biological, physical, and geological sciences and deprive[s] students of the education they need to be informed and productive citizens in an increasingly technological, global community.
“The scientific literacy of students,” the letter concluded, “is at risk, which in turn puts our nation’s competitiveness and ability to continue to achieve major advances in technology and public health at risk.”
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn hailed Vitter’s back track on the earmark as “great news,” but questioned why the proposal was ever made.
“If Sen. Vitter’s aim was to improve science education in Louisiana, I have to wonder why he did not direct these funds to a scientific group or a museum,” Lynn said. “Boosting science education is an odd task for a religious group.”
Some activists in Louisiana continue to voice concern that the money in question may still wind up subsidizing creationism. The funds have been directed to the Ouachita Parish School Board.
Vitter spokesman Joel DiGrado told the newspaper, “To make this perfectly clear, Sen. Vitter has asked the bill’s authors to direct, in conference committee, that the funds go directly to the school board there for science and computer labs.”
LFF head Gene Mills did not publicly criticize Vitter for his retraction of the earmark. Instead, Mills was defiant, telling The Advocate that the battle over creationism and intelligent design would continue.
Earlier this year when news broke of Vitter’s connection to the call-girl operation in Washington, D.C., Mills defended Vitter in videos that were posted on the LFF’s Web site.
After Americans United and the other public interest groups successfully aligned against the Vitter earmark, additional media attention focused on the use of congressional earmarks for religious groups.
The Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call, reported that a review “of fiscal 2008 appropriations bills shows that scores of religious organizations across the country are being singled out” by lawmakers for federal grants and that “a number of the earmarks appears to be going to groups whose primary mission is evangelical.”
Another Washington, D.C., periodical, The Politico, detailed Sen. Arlen Specter’s earmarks for abstinence education. The newspaper noted that the Pennsylvania Republican has directed more than $8 million into dozens of the programs over recent years.
Americans United State Legislative Counsel Dena Sher told Roll Call that subsidies for religion are problematic.
“Under the Constitution,” she said, “government funding cannot be used to endorse religion; it cannot be used for religious activities; and it cannot be used to construct buildings for religious purposes.”
Sher said Vitter’s earmark was especially egregious because it targeted a clearly unconstitutional plan – the teaching of creationism in public school science courses.
“You had 36 groups lining up against this thing and some were making a lot of noise,” Sher said. “That is unusual.”
AU will continue to monitor earmarks to religious organizations and mount challenges when possible, she said.
“But we shouldn’t expect victory upon victory,” Sher said. “There will be many instances where it will simply be impossible to move a lawmaker off an earmark. And, of course, not all funding of religious groups violates the First Amendment. Current law does allow some public funding of secular work that is performed by religiously affiliated groups.”
AU’s Lynn says shining a light on constitutionally dubious earmarks makes a difference.
“When we learn of an earmark aimed at advancing a religious agenda we will raise our voices, and we’ll ask others to join us,” Lynn said. “If more taxpayers speak out against these types of appropriations, there may come a day when they’ll be easier to challenge and defeat. We saw in the Vitter earmark dustup that it is not always impossible.”