Intelligent Defense

Louisiana Activist Barbara Forrest Counters Religious Right Attacks On Public School Science Classes

For Barbara Forrest, fighting for church-state separation and quality science education in Louisiana – and the rest of the nation – has become her civic duty.

“Someone once said, ‘knowledge brings responsibility.’ I had the skills to do it, I knew what was going on, I understood it,” Forrest said, describing why she wrote her first book with co-author Paul R. Gross, Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, a 2004 work (updated in paperback in 2007) that exposed the theocratic agenda of the Discovery Institute and other creationist organizations. “I don’t want these people running my country and running my kids’ schools.”

It hasn’t been an easy battle for Forrest, whose home state seems determined to blur the church-state line in its public schools while watering down quality science education. Last year, Gov. Bobby Jindal signed into law an “academic freedom” measure that allows teachers to introduce “supplemental materials” in addition to the textbook in science classrooms, opening the door for creationist concepts to be taught in public schools.

Forrest led the Louisiana Coalition for Science, a network of individuals that organized to oppose the creationist proposal. And though the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF), the local arm of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, and the Discovery Institute succeeded in passing the legislation, Forrest is fighting to make sure the law does not damage biology classes across the state.

She continually warns officials about the harm this measure will cause, both educationally and financially. Forrest makes sure the media and the public know what Jindal is costing the state in signing the “Louisiana Science Education Act.”

The state took its first tangible hit in February, when leaders of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology told the governor they were moving their annual meeting from New Orleans to Salt Lake City because the organization could not support the state’s push to weaken science education. The previous meeting, held in Boston, had brought in 1,800 scientists and graduate students for five days.

“I stayed up one Friday night and did a press release,” Forrest said. “That’s how nerds spend their Friday nights.”

Forrest has played a pivotal role in taking on the Religious Right in Louisiana and has come to be a strong asset to Americans United, serving on the Board of Trustees for two years, the National Advisory Committee for eight years and as an active member for 13 years.

Despite working as a full-time professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, La., and being a mother of two, Forrest travels widely, speaking on church-state separation and educating the public on the Religious Right’s agenda to push creationism and “intelligent design” (ID) in public school science classrooms.

She has also made numerous appearances on national TV and radio shows to discuss ID, including ABC’s “Nightline,” CNN’s “Larry King Live,” PBS’s “Nova,” NPR’s “Weekend Edition” and AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn’s “Culture Shocks.”

Forrest is also very active at the grassroots level. When AU started a new chapter in Louisiana in the summer of 2008, she attended the first informational meetings, advising the chapter founders on the ins and outs of the organization.

“[Forrest] has just been priceless,” Louisiana AU Chapter President Patti Garner said. “She is invaluable because she knows so much that we don’t know about. We had so many questions and we still do. She has a lot of answers for us.”

The AU national office has also relied on Forrest.

“Barbara has battled the Louisiana Family Forum and other groups like it for so long in Louisiana that she has been able to help me understand all of the political history of the state and connect all the dots,” said Dena Sher, AU state legislative counsel.

But long before Forrest joined AU’s cause, she started with a personal battle of her own. In 1994, when her oldest son was 14, a creationist group from New Orleans attempted to convince her local school district to adopt a supplemental curriculum guide that would teach creationist concepts.

“I had a friend at the time who was a biologist at Southeastern who helped me go through [the curriculum guide],” she said. “That was the first place where I had seen the term ‘intelligent design’ connected with creationism. It was just this grade-school level, incompetent, scientifically illiterate mish-mash of stuff.

“None of the people who were listed as authors had the credentials to be writing this,” she continued. “They were just a bunch of creationists who had an agenda and they came to a little rural school district where they thought it would be smooth sailing. But it surprised them when they found out they had a knowledgeable person in the community who fought back.”

Forrest spoke out against the proposed curriculum guide at school board meetings, where she was once mocked publicly behind her back by the creationists promoting the curriculum guide. She was even stood up by her own school board member, who failed to keep an appointment with her.

But Forrest continued to fight. She put together a lengthy critique of the curriculum and sent it to the board members. She also sent letters to members of the Science Curriculum Committee, which was made up of 23 teachers from around the school district, and got them on board against the creationists’ curriculum guide. The teachers voted 23-2 against its adoption. She also corresponded with scientists from around the country, including Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine, in order to marshal opposition.

In the end, the board used a substitute motion to sidestep the Science Curriculum Committee’s rejection of the curriculum guide and instead voted 5-4 to allow “student initiated” discussions of “origins,” which teachers could permit at their discretion. Fortunately, the district superintendent later sent out a memo clarifying that the school district would only teach evolution.

“I thought ‘Hallelujah!’” she said. “Of all the parents of the 17,000 children in the school district, I was the only parent who stood up against the curriculum guide.”

Her success in taking on problems in her own son’s school district propelled the philosophy professor to the forefront in this battle with the Religious Right. She became knowledgeable about the players in the creationism movement, particularly the Discovery Institute in Seattle.

In 1999, she was asked to write an article about the Discovery Institute’s inroads in promoting intelligent-design creationism.

“There was so much material, I ended up with a book manuscript,” she said.

Since then, Forrest has been regarded as an expert in the field, and was asked to testify as a witness in Kitzmiller v. Dover, a landmark AU/ACLU case that struck down the teaching of intelligent design in public schools.

Lawyers from the Thomas More Law Center, a Religious Right group that was defending the creationist-dominated public school board in Kitzmiller, tried to stop Forrest from testifying. She was described in their motion to remove her as a witness as “little more than a conspiracy theorist and a web-surfing, ‘cyber-stalker’ of the Discovery Institute.”

Days before she testified, she learned that Discovery Institute staffers had ridiculed her on their Web site, posting a transcript of an interview they claimed Forrest had done, but that had never happened. In the fake interview, a fictitious radio host referred to Forrest as “Dr. Barking Forrest Ph.D.”

Forrest later wrote, “If [the Discovery Institute staffers] thought this would unsettle me, they were ignoring the fact that I had just been through two killer hurricanes. I could only shake my head at their doing something so jaw-droppingly stupid. If they were hoping [the judge] would see and be influenced by this silliness, it was just another sign of the disrespect for his intelligence and integrity that began before the trial and continues today.”

Over the years, Forrest has grown used to taking heat for being so vocal on a controversial topic, especially living in a conservative, Southern state. But despite the few instances where she has been criticized and called names, she stands firm that she could never live anywhere else except the South.

Born in Hammond, La., just a few blocks from where she works now, Forrest was always extremely independent-minded. Even as a child, she says she was often at odds with her family. But her tough personality has allowed her to stand her ground the few times when she has felt directly attacked by those who didn’t like her viewpoint.

Forrest said that despite her outspoken stance, she feels fortunate that she has never been treated badly by her state. But Forrest added that when she was fighting against the passage of the Louisiana Science Education Act, she did feel insulted by legislators who refused to take her expertise and advice into consideration.

“It wasn’t just me, it was the other teachers and scientists. Together we were all uniformly ignored,” she said. “Our expertise counted for absolutely nothing with our elected officials. The only people they were influenced by and that they listened to were the creationists who don’t even send their kids to public schools.

“That didn’t do me any kind of injury,” she said, “but I was embarrassed for my state.”

Forrest has most recently gone to battle with the LFF and Discovery Institute over how the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) will implement last year’s Louisiana Science Education Act that Forrest worked so hard to defeat. Though she was unable to stop the law from going into effect, Forrest at least hoped she could ensure that the “supplemental materials” it permits into the classrooms are scientifically sound.

But the Louisiana Family Forum and Discovery Institute once again succeeded in carrying more influence than the state’s scientists and teachers. These creationist groups were able to convince the BESE to pass their proposals both for how the new law will be administered in local school districts and for how complaints over potentially religion-based “supplemental materials” will be reviewed.

“These people now have a stranglehold on the policy governing science education,” she said. “The public officials have just handed them control of the public policy governing the way science is taught.”

Now it’s a matter of monitoring individual school districts in the state to ensure teachers are not violating church-state separation by introduction of religious materials.

Though Forrest acknowledges that the climate in Louisiana is ripe for a Religious Right agenda, especially with Jindal at the helm, she doesn’t believe that’s any reason to give up.

“I think we still have to do something, but I can’t do it alone,” she said. “It’s going to take an organized effort. I’ve tried really hard to do a good job, but I feel I haven’t accomplished anything in my own state.”

But nothing could be further from the truth, said AU’s Sher.

“Barbara is a powerhouse and a huge asset to our work in Louisiana,” she said. “I’m often in the role of motivating activists in the states, but Barbara’s enthusiasm actually motivates me.”