Reports of the National Center for Science Education

The Rise and Fall of the Vitter Earmark

"Sen David Vitter, R–La., earmarked $100 000 in a spending bill for a Louisiana Christian group that has challenged the teaching of Darwinian evolution in the public school system and to which he has political ties," reported the New Orleans Times-Picayune (2007 Sep 22). Buried in the Senate Appropriations Committee's version of the appropriations bill for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education was a provision allocating funds to the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF) of Baton Rouge "to develop a plan to promote better science education."

In a written statement, Vitter explained, "This program helps supplement and support educators and school systems that would like to offer all of the explanations in the study of controversial science topics such as global warming and the life sciences." The Times-Picayune added, "The money in the earmark will pay for a report suggesting 'improvements' in science education in Louisiana, the development and distribution of educational materials and an evaluation of the effectiveness of the Ouachita Parish School Board's 2006 policy that opened the door to biblically inspired teachings in science classes."

Adopted in 2006 with the backing of the LFF, the Ouachita Parish School Board's policy permits teachers to help students to understand "the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught;" "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning" are the only topics specifically mentioned. A local paper editorially described it as "a policy that is so clear that one School Board member voted affirmatively while adding, 'but I don't know what I'm voting on'" (Monroe News-Star, 2006 Dec 3; see RNCSE 2006 Nov/Dec; 26 [6]: 8–11).

Although the Ouachita policy reflects the stealth creationist campaign of "teach the controversy," the LFF is not always so coy. The Times-Picayune reported: "Until recently, its Web site contained a 'battle plan to combat evolution,' which called the theory a 'dangerous' concept that 'has no place in the classroom.' The document was removed after a reporter's inquiry." (That document was written by Kent Hovind, the flamboyant young-earth creationist who is currently serving a ten-year sentence in federal prison for tax evasion and obstruction of justice; see RNCSE 2006 Jul/Aug; 26 [4]: 12–3.) The LFF also distributes "addenda" for science textbooks that promote various creationist claims, including the "irreducible complexity" of the bacterial flagellum and flood geology.

Writing in the New Orleans Times-Picayune (2007 Sep 26), columnist James Gill took Vitter to task for his proposal. The Louisiana Family Forum, Gill observed, "has said the theory of evolution 'has no place in the classroom' and has blamed Charles Darwin for Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot." "The Web site," he added, "leaves no doubt that they would ban evolutionary theory altogether if they could; there is no incentive to give equal billing to what they see as heresy."

Concerned about Vitter's earmark, a coalition of more than thirty religious, civil rights, education, science, and advocacy organizations, spearheaded by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and including NCSE, sent a letter to every member of the Senate, calling on them to oppose the Vitter earmark. The letter (see sidebar, p 10–1) argued, "Not only would granting federal funding for the LFF's program be unconstitutional, it also would be bad policy that would infringe upon students' religious freedom and undermine their education in the important discipline of science."

People for the American Way (PFAW) sent its own letter opposing the earmark. In a press release dated October 17, 2007, PFAW's Director of Public Policy Tanya Clay House described the earmark as "completely inappropriate," adding, "Sending taxpayer money to a religious group whose mission is to force creationism into public schools as science is a blatant attack on the separation of church and state. Claiming that the money will be spent on improving science education adds insult to injury."

Additionally, NCSE e-mailed its members and friends in Iowa, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Mississippi to urge them to lobby Senators Tom Harkin, Arlen Specter, Robert Byrd, and Thad Cochran to remove the Vitter earmark. (Due to their positions on the Appropriations Committee and its Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, these senators were in a position to wield the greatest influence on the final form of the bill.)

The protests were apparently heeded, for Vitter withdrew the earmark on the Senate floor on October 17, 2007, even while insisting that the money was not aimed at promoting creationism and describing the concerns as "hysterics." According to the Congressional Record, Vitter said:
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. That is clearly not and never was the intent of the project, nor would it have been its effect. 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.
Senators Tom Harkin (D–Iowa) and Arlen Specter (R–Pennsylvania), the floor managers of the appropriations bill, accepted Vitter's proposal and agreed to move the funds to a different project in Louisiana when the bill is in its conference committee.

Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, applauding the removal of the earmark in a press release dated October 18, 2007, commented, "If [Senator] 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." He added, "Boosting science education is an odd task for a religious group."

"Senator Vitter's defense of the earmark is obviously disingenuous, given the Louisiana Family Forum's record of fighting tooth and nail against evolution education," commented NCSE's executive director Eugenie C Scott. "But I'm glad to see that, with the removal of his earmark, public funds are not going to be misused to miseducate the children of Louisiana about the science of evolution."

Not all fears were allayed, however. The Baton Rouge Advocate reported (2007 Oct 20) that Vitter wanted to redirect the funds of the earmark to science and computer labs in Ouachita Parish schools, which prompted Barbara Forrest — a native of Louisiana and a member of NCSE's Board of Directors — to worry, "The money is just being moved around ... All the signs indicate that it could be used for its initial purpose." Representatives of People for the American Way and the ACLU echoed her concern.

In a subsequent letter to the Advocate (2007 Oct 25), Forrest contended that the redirection of the funds to Ouachita Parish was suspicious, given the LFF's support of the stealth creationist policy there. Quoting LFF Director Gene Mills's statement that the LFF "wasn't disappointed with the funding change and encouraged Vitter to redirect it," she remarked, "Given LFF's alliance with the Ouachita Parish School Board, we should take him at his word," and warned, "The LFF will make sure this battle doesn't go away."

But Forrest's concerns were overtaken by events. Shorn of the Vitter earmark, the appropriations bill passed the Senate, proceeded through a conference committee, and was ultimately vetoed, on November 13, 2007, by President Bush.

By Glenn Branch, NCSE Deputy Director
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.