Theocratic Terror in the Classroom

In a case that reminds us of the ongoing ordeal of James Corbett, the California high school teacher who referred to creationism as “superstitious nonsense” and who was then sued by a student, we have news of yet another public school teacher who alleges that she has been made to suffer for teaching what the schools are supposed to teach.

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) reports A teacher punished over evolution? Here are some excerpts, with bold added by us:

In early 2005, the parents of a girl in [North Carolina middle school science teacher] Pamela Hensley’s eighth-grade science class alleged that Hensley gave their daughter a low grade in retaliation for her comments during the class discussion on evolution, complaining that she was “antagonistic and rude when her beliefs are challenged by true ‘Christian’ students.” After investigating, the principal concluded that there was no retaliation. According to Hensley, however, the parents lobbied the district to force her to apologize, to transfer her, and to revise its curriculum to “include a religious view of the teaching of science.”

It’s a jungle out there. The NCSE article continues:

Hensley was eventually asked by the school district to sign a letter of apology; regarding it as containing false statements as originally drafted, she refused. She was then transferred, mid-year, to a different position in the district. She was told that the incident “remains a source of tension and distraction within the school system, and it has diminished your credibility at North Johnston Middle School.”

It would seem that only creationist teachers have credibility in that school system. Continuing:

In 2007, Hensley filed a complaint in the Johnson County Superior Court, subsequently removed to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, alleging that the district’s actions violated her rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, the North Carolina Constitution, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Americans With Disabilities Act. On December 23, 2010, the court granted (PDF) summary judgment for the defendants with regard to all of Hensley’s claims except for her Americans With Disabilities Act claim.

NCSE has an archive of the court pleadings: Hensley v. Johnston County Board of Education,. This is the order of dismissal (pdf file). We note that this doesn’t appear to be a summary judgment, just a dismissal. We think it’s possible that Hensley could file an amended complaint.

Now we turn to an article on this case by Lauri Lebo. If you don’t yet know who she is, the next two indented paragraphs will fill you in.

During the forty-day trial that led to the decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, Lauri was a reporter for the York Daily Record, the local paper for the site of the trial. Lauri’s byline was the brand name for superbly written, in-depth news stories from the courthouse.

Lauri and her work were prominently mentioned in the NOVA documentary, Judgment Day. She is also the author of: The Devil in Dover: An Insider’s Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-town America.

Lauri’s latest is at the website Religion Dispatches, where we read: Was a Teacher Disciplined for Refusing to Apologize for Teaching Science? Here are some excerpts, with bold added by us:

According to Hensley’s complaint, the parents demanded she publicly admit she demonstrated “unconstitutional hostility against the beliefs of the Christian students in the classroom by questioning the literal content of the Bible and by teaching her theological position that the Bible contains errors.”

What’s with this feckless apology stuff? Why didn’t they just burn the woman at the stake? Isn’t that the traditional punishment for blasphemy? Let’s read on:

It’s difficult to tell exactly what took place in the classroom and whether Hensley overstepped her boundaries in a discussion of religion. Nonetheless, this all leads me to wonder, if a student argues in class that the bible is life’s literal blueprint, facts be damned, is it wrong for a teacher, in the course of teaching science, to correct the student’s misinformed worldview? Or, in the interest of not offending the child and parents, must the teacher coddle such ignorance?

It’s too early to know whether Hensley is going to appeal the dismissal — or maybe file an amended complaint. It’s also too early to know if this kind of creationist aggression signals a national trend — a jihad against science in the classroom. We’ll keep an eye on both of those questions.

Copyright © 2011. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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11 responses to “Theocratic Terror in the Classroom

  1. What’s with this feckless apology stuff? Why didn’t they just burn the woman at the stake? Isn’t that the traditional punishment for blasphemy?

    Small steps, small steps.

    We can work our way up from Expelling people for being honest, to more appropriate measures in due course.

  2. Leilani Hagberg

    Scary Christian Nation should be a TV show where the Underground tries to stay alive and keep the electrical grid up while the christians handle snakes and pray for lights

  3. LOL! Leilani, that was funny!

    I think that science teachers must NEVER address the correctness of religion in class, stating instead, “This is a science class. I am neither prepared nor is it appropriate to discuss your personal philosophy in this class. I am prepared and it is entirely appropriate to discuss the scientific facts. That is what we will do today. If you have questions about your personal philosophy, I suggest you ask your parents.”

    If the student persists, repeat, “This is a science class. Here, we only discuss science.” Then document, document, document names, dates, places, and what was said just in case.

  4. Greg Laden posted about this too. I made some comments at his blog. This hits very close to home and I haven’t seen anything in the local news about the dismissal.
    A former lawyer also made some interesting comments too. Check it out here: http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2011/01/teachers_you_can_be_punished_i.php#c3073217

  5. Gabriel Hanna

    What I told my (college) students was than neither I nor the professor knew or cared what religious beliefs they held–all we cared about was if the students learned the facts about evolution we taught them. They didn’t have to believe any of it.

  6. retiredsciguy

    I like your response, LRA. I’m retired now, but fortunately, I didn’t have any agressively ignorant students trying to bait me into a science vs. religion discussion while I was teaching. Had some interesting conversations with a few parents during parent-teacher conferences, though. One that particularly stands out was a mom who said, “We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we don’t believe in glaciers.”

    I wasn’t prepared for that one, so I just smiled and reassured her that her son was a fine young man and and was doing well in my seventh-grade Earth Science class. As I recall, he didn’t seem to take his sect’s prohibition of glaciers all that seriously.

  7. LRA, that’s a good response. I was going to say the same thing before reading it. OTOH, I guess I’m still somewhat baffled. Why? Because I’m old and when I was this student’s age, I would no more have complained to my parents about a teacher than I could have sprouted wings.

    As I said. I’m old. The parents are obviously heretics (but it’s OK, we Anglicans long gave up burning anyone at the stake), and I’m glad I don’t live in North Carolina, although I have a friend who lives there. I’m not sure how she gets along, considering she and her husband are both Atheists.

    retiredsciguy, I have a DIL who is a Witness (although I think she is shunned for marrying an Episcopalian). I’m going to have to ask her about glaciers, ’cause that’s a new one for me!

  8. Wait, glaciers? Really?!?!

  9. Retired Science Guy One that particularly stands out was a mom who said, “We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we don’t believe in glaciers.”

    That struck me as very silly. So I googled ‘jehovah’s witnesses glaciers’ and the first link to come up is a Watchtower article about a visit to a glacier.

    While not defending the JWs, I think we have to remember that people are not above ‘playing the religion card’ to defend some position which in reality has nothing whatsoever to do with that religion. This seems to be a case of a parent playing the religion card, rather than being a poor reflection on the JWs per se.

    Back on topic, thanks for the links to the Lebo and Laden articles. I’m off to read them now. :)

  10. I have to point out that creationism is not the only orthodoxy that can get a teacher fired or shoved to the side. It’s been my observation over the last twelve years that any professor who doesn’t play along with the controlling view will, at best, be ignored, but likely what will happen is that the situation will be made untenable.

    The general point to be made is that academic freedom is in danger in all fields. If you teach, but you can’t show how you appeal to the masses and raise various numbers (money, enrollment, etc.) for the school, you’re soon to be out.

  11. retiredsciguy

    To Ellie, eric, and Gary,
    My thinking at the time was that the mother may have been a bit confused about something her pastor may have said. At any rate, it illustrates what teachers are up against — there’s a lot of ignorance out there, and there are some folks who hold to their ignorance with a passion, and don’t take kindly to our well-meaning attempts to enlighten them. Thus my agreement with LRA’s approach above.