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Is Jindal Too Conservative for McCain?

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/jindal.jpgGov. Bobby Jindal

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana is young, Southern and right-wing — a set of demographics that Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee, has sought to draw into his campaign. So why did Jindal last week take himself out of the running for the No. 2 spot on McCain’s ticket? Could it be that his religious conservatism was too much for the Arizona senator and his aides to handle?


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Last month, Jindal signed a law that gives Louisiana school boards a new way to skirt laws banning the teaching of creationism in public schools. Similar legislation, with support from a Seattle group called the Discovery Institute, was introduced but failed in the Florida, Missouri, South Carolina, Alabama and Michigan legislatures. The law gives local school boards a way to challenge the teaching of evolution and other science that they may find politically or religiously repugnant.

The Louisiana law was originally called the Academic Freedom Act, and its language is remarkably anodyne. In fact it’s reminiscent of what you’d hear in a left-wing critical studies classroom; it encourages the school system to “promote critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion.” Unlike previous attacks, this one clearly hopes to slip through the constitutional ban on the mixing of state and religion by not specifically mentioning the alternative to evolution.

But here’s the rub: “open discussion” in the law refers to the science classroom, specifically when discussing “scientific theories, including but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” If this were really about thinking critically, and not imposing a right-wing religious viewpoint on your science students, the “critical thinking skills” might also refer to the things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, or the heroic interpretation of American history. But no — it’s about raising questions about scientific principles. That’s why leading U.S. scientific organizations asked Jindal to veto the bill, and are concerned that other states might pass it.

The Louisiana House passed the bill, by then redrafted as the Science Education Act, by 94-3; the state Senate by 36-0. According to Barbara Forrest, a Southeastern Louisiana University philosophy professor who testified against the bill, the landslide has two explanations: the legislature is extremely conservative, and those who aren’t Bible literalists fear Jindal’s homeschooled chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, and the Louisiana Family Forum. This lobbying group, which works closely with Jindal, was co-founded by former Louisiana assemblyman Tony Perkins and is loosely associated with his Family Research Council.

“Jindal had his people in the committee rooms during the sessions,” said Forrest, “twisting arms to get what they wanted on this bill and others.”

Jindal’s office did not respond to an email and a phone request for comment about this and other points in this article.

The passage of the bill marks the latest step by religious right activists to get an alternative to Godless Darwinism taught as the driving force behind life on earth.

In 1981, Louisiana passed the Balanced Treatment Act, which required that creationism be taught along with evolution theory. The U.S. Supreme Court smacked down that law in 1987 in Edwards v. Aguillard, closing the door on the open teaching of “creation science” in public schools. Later, the Discovery Institute, a movement of culturally conservative academics, began promoting Intelligent Design—the idea that life and the earth’s forms were too complex to have arisen by spontaneous mutations and change, and therefore must be the work of some kind of creator. This was a supposed “scientific theory” that offered a way around that ban against creationism.

But mainstream science brushes off Intelligent Design as rewarmed creationism, and the courts have agreed. In 2005, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones, a Bush appointee, ruled against the Dover, Penn., school board, finding that Intelligent Design was simply creationism under another name, and thus more appropriate for discussion in church than science class.

The Louisiana law may lead to a more complicated legal fight. The law mentions neither creationism nor Intelligent Design. It permits science teachers, with the approval of local school boards, to supplement textbook material on evolution and other subjects with materials that stimulate “critical thinking.” The state school board could, in theory, overrule local boards if they OK creationist teachings. But first it would have to find out about them. And intervening might not be politically attractive in such a conservative environment.

However, “if the ACLU gets wind of these cases, they’ll jump right in and sue,” says a New Orleans attorney who has followed the proceedings. “It’ll be Dover all over again.”

In neighboring Texas, meanwhile, a proposal before the board of education calls for including the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution in that state’s science curriculum, which is influential because textbooks prepared for Texas’ giant school system are often sold in other states.

Last year, the Texas Education Assn. (TEA) fired its science director, Chris Comer, for passing along an e-mail from the National Center for Science Education announcing a talk by Dr. Forrest, co-author of the Intelligent Design critique Creationism’s Trojan Horse. Comer’s boss said the e-mail violated the TEA’s “neutrality” on the question.

Comer fired back on July 8, filing a lawsuit that demands her reinstatement as well as a “declaratory judgment that the TEA policy of being ‘neutral’ on the subject of creationism violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”

Jindal has made no secret of his belief in creationism. Born in 1971, to recent immigrants from the Punjab, he converted to Roman Catholicism in high school and graduated from Brown University with a degree in biology. Instead of going to medical school he became Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where he studied politics.

As governor, Jindal has had close ties with the religious right. In 1994, in an essay published in the conservative New Oxford Review, he described his participation in the exorcism of a close college friend, a girl who he suspected was possessed by the devil because she was sputtering profanity-laced invective.

In a debate before his landslide election last year, Jindal justified his skepticism of evolution by saying, “there’s no theory in science that could explain how, contrary to the laws of entropy, you could create order out of chaos. There’s no scientific theory that explains how you can create organic life out of inorganic matter. I think we owe it to our children to teach them the best possible modern scientific facts and theories.”

In fact, there is an entire field of scientific inquiry into the chemical origins of life. Arthur Landy, Jindal’s professor of genetics at Brown, joined leading scientist associations who wrote to ask the governor to veto the Science Education Act. “Without evolution, modern biology, including medicine and biotechnology, wouldn’t make sense,” Landy wrote. “Gov. Jindal was a good student in my class when he was thinking about becoming a doctor, and I hope he doesn’t do anything that would hold back the next generation of Louisiana’s doctors.”

Jindal did not respond to the letters from Landy and other scientists.

Jindal is a popular governor — though a recent controversy over a legislative pay hike cost him some support. In any case, in Louisiana, belief in creationism is no political sin. But many observers in the state have their doubts he will make it on the national stage.

“A lot of people love Bobby but only in comparison to [Gov. Kathleen] Blanco, who was here during The Storm [Hurricane Katrina] and was over her head. With her as governor, Nagin as mayor, and the clowns Bush had running FEMA, there wasn’t a competent official between us and the Pope,” said the New Orleans lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous because of his involvement in the case. But while “writing about an exorcism you took part in may not hurt you in Louisiana, on a national platform it could give you serious problems.”

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