Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Minnesota Teacher Sues District Over Evolution

Rodney LeVake was teaching middle school science in Faribault, Minnesota, about 60 miles south of Minneapolis, when he applied for a fall 1997 biology teaching position at the Faribault high school. Because of district policies favoring in-district transfers of teachers with the appropriate credentials, he soon got the job.

According to other teachers at the high school, LeVake "was openly professing his Christianity. He would argue things from a fundamentalist point of view" (Leiblich 1999). His colleagues became uneasy about his approach to evolution, which was decidedly negative. The science chair at the high school, biologist Ken Hubert, talked with LeVake and decided that he needed to meet with the principal and the district science coordinator to discuss how he was teaching the class.

During that meeting, LeVake claimed he was willing to teach evolution, but also wanted to teach the "evidence against evolution". The administrators requested that he prepare a white paper that would describe more precisely what he intended to teach. This document presented the following points (among others):

"[N]either evolution or creation can be considered a science because neither are [sic] observable at the present."
"[P]roponents of either interpretation must accept it as a matter of faith."
"The process of evolution itself is not only impossible from a biochemical, anatomical, and physiological standpoint, but the theory of evolution has no evidence to show that it actually occurred."

LeVake also expressed opinions familiar to readers of creationist literature:

"the amazing lack of transitional forms in the fossil record."
"the mutation changing a leg into a wing could [not] be beneficial for the creature who possessed it."
"The theory of evolution is in clear violation of [the Second Law of Thermodynamics]."
"Natural selection occurs, but it is inadequate to produce 'macroevolution'" [by which LeVake means descent with modification].
"Homology is the study of similar organs/structures on different creatures that have the same function. It has been discovered that they arise from different locations on the DNA sequence."

He also gave a long list of examples of the "incredible complexity" that supposedly cannot be explained by evolution, and which are part and parcel of creationist objections to evolution, including:

"The structure of the microscopic bacterial flagella [sic]."
"The woodpecker's tongue and shock absorber."
"The complete metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly."

LeVake recommended Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial, and Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box, "although I have not personally read the last two books listed as of yet...."

LeVake claimed he would teach evolution, but somehow never got around to it during his first year of teaching. The district has a detailed curriculum for biology instruction, involving the showing of several videos as well as class lectures, laboratories, and assigned reading. Administrators decided that for the 1998–1999 school year, LeVake would be re-assigned to teaching a course in which evolution is not a component: freshman general science. In May 1999, LeVake sued the district in Minnesota state court — as he put it to a reporter, to "get his course back".

LeVake's complaint claims that the district discriminated against him because of his religious beliefs (see RNCSE 1999; 19 [3]: 24–6). He alleges that the district restricted his employment because of his "adherence or non-adherence to certain religious or philosophical beliefs". He also argues, as have creationist plaintiffs before him, a free speech right to teach what he wants. He asks the court to direct "that the district's policy, of excluding from biology teaching positions persons whose religious beliefs conflict with acceptance of evolution as an unquestionable fact, to be unconstitutional and illegal under the US and Minnesota Constitution." He requests $50 000 compensation and court costs.

LeVake has some deep-pocketed allies behind him. His lawyer, Francis J Manion, works for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a Religious Right organization that views the First Amendment, to put it mildly, quite differently than does the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLJ is a spin-off of Christian evangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. At the Christian Coalition's October 1999 annual meeting, chief legal counsel Jay Sekulow described LeVake's re- assignment as an example of "educational McCarthyism" (Lieblich 1999). The LeVake case was the topic of a CNN Newsline program broadcast in March 2000.

In earlier lawsuits in Illinois (Webster v New Lennox) and California (Peloza v San Juan Capistrano), teachers sued their districts over the issue of creationism. LeVake's attorneys take a somewhat different tack by discussing not "creationism" but the neocreationist "evidence against evolution". They may not have an opportunity to introduce this "creationism lite" into the courts, since the school district is approaching the case from the standpoint of employment law. It is the responsibility of the defense attorney to make the best possible case for his client, and much case law supports both the right of a district to determine curricula and the contractual responsibility of a teacher to teach the district-mandated curriculum. The district's position is that LeVake was re-assigned because he did not follow the district curriculum for high school biology. Of course, LeVake could have been fired, but he was merely re-assigned to a course that did not generate the same sort of conflict for him.

The case is scheduled to go to trial in June, though defendants have requested a summary judgment.
By Eugenie C. Scott
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