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Heresy trials

Is a vocal Christian inherently unqualified to teach biology?

A current free-speech case resembles the Scopes Monkey Trial in reverse. The setting is similar-a rural community known for its shimmering lakes and rolling farms, a beleaguered but earnest teacher determined to challenge the status quo, and a pair of high-powered lawyers duking it out in court. Only instead of being lampooned for criticizing creationism, as was Tennessee teacher John Scopes in 1925, this time the teacher is being punished for critiquing evolution.

The culprit is Rod LeVake, a soft-spoken, 6'2" football coach who thought he had reached the pinnacle of his career after becoming a biology teacher in Faribault, Minn.-a mid-size farming community 45 miles south of the Twin Cities. Mr. LeVake accepted the position in 1997 after teaching junior high physical science for 13 years. "On the first day of class, I told my students that my life-long dream of teaching biology had come true. Of course, they all stared at me like I was strange," he said. Four months later, his students stared again as he gave them a farewell speech.

Religious discrimination destroyed his dream, said Mr. LeVake, an outspoken Christian who often gives invocations at school football banquets. In a federal lawsuit filed in June 1999, he said school administrators pulled him from the class mid-semester after questioning him about his Christian faith-even though he repeatedly told them he would not teach creationism. The Minnesota State Supreme Court refused his appeal, and his next stop may be the U.S. Supreme Court. "This is about whether a Christian can teach biology and whether Darwinism can be criticized," said Mr. LeVake.

Also at stake is whether Christian teachers in the public schools have religious freedom protection. For years, left-wing church-state groups have warned teachers against pushing religion on their students, but what if the school system uses religion to punish the teacher?

Mr. LeVake's trouble began after he informed a few colleagues of his plans to alert students about textbook errors regarding evolution. For instance, the students' textbook cited Haeckel's Embryos-scientific drawings showing similarities between different species' embryos-as a proof of evolution. Real-life photographs have since cast doubt on those similarities.

Mr. LeVake was summoned to a surprise meeting with his school principal and two other administrators, who interrogated him for two hours. "They asked me questions like, 'What are your beliefs? ... Do your students know you are a Christian? Have you ever mentioned God or the Bible in class?'" recalled Mr. LeVake. After admitting he believed in creation, he was subjected to another inquisition before the entire science department: "They went around the room and fired questions at me," he said. "I remember one person saying, 'What you believe is just like believing the earth is flat.'" At the end of the meeting, the principal, Dave Johnson, instructed Mr. LeVake to submit a position paper explaining how he planned to teach evolution.

"I don't believe an unquestioning faith in the theory of evolution is foundational to the goals I have stated in teaching my students about themselves, their responsibilities, and gaining a sense of awe for what they see around them," said Mr. LeVake in his two-page position paper. "I will teach, should the department decide that it is appropriate, the theory of evolution. I will also accompany that treatment of evolution with an honest look at the difficulties and inconsistencies of the theory without turning my class into a religious one. Anything less than this constitutes poor science."

His statement failed to appease school officials, who promptly transferred him to a chemistry class-despite the fact that he is the school's only teacher with a biology master's degree. In a letter dated May 14, 1998, superintendent Keith Dixon told Mr. LeVake that his position paper "made it clear that you cannot teach the curriculum."

"I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me," said Mr. LeVake. "I don't mind teaching kids the theories of evolution, but I cannot just stand there and say this is truth and there aren't any problems with it. They wanted me to teach it like dogma."

By judging that Mr. LeVake was unable to teach because of his personal religious beliefs, Faribault school officials became thought police, said Francis Manion, a lawyer from the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which is representing Mr. LeVake. Citing the school syllabus's promise to teach evolution in an "impartial" and "open manner," Mr. Manion argued that Mr. LeVake "was doing exactly what the school asked him to do, but because they read into what he wants to do something they deemed to be religious, they took him off the job. In effect, it was religious prejudice."

The question is, can religious people teach in the public school without having their faith used against them? Despite its penchant for school-prayer cases, the Supreme Court has remained silent on the issue, save a brief sentence in the Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District (1969) decision stating that neither teachers nor students "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." But that vague language leaves teachers walking a shaky tightrope between their individual rights and their role as state employees. "Schools have a lot of leeway in controlling what is said in the classroom, and they should," said the ACLJ's Mr. Manion. "But at the same time, we shouldn't require teachers to pretend that they do not have religious beliefs. These are not robots that we put in front of the classroom," he said.

In May the Minnesota Court of Appeals backed the Faribault school district: "LeVake's responsibility as a public school teacher to teach evolution in the manner prescribed by the curriculum overrides his First Amendment rights as a private citizen," said the court. Mr. LeVake responded, "That's kind of scary, if you have to check your First Amendment rights at the door as you go in to teach." He is hoping state justices will overturn the ruling.

Meanwhile, Texas fifth-grade teacher Karen Barrow says religious discrimination also destroyed her dreams. After teaching gifted-and-talented classes for five years in Greenville, Texas, a rural community 75 miles south of Dallas, she hoped to become a principal at a local middle school. "I have worked all my life in education, 18 years now, and I wanted to finish my career as an administrator. That was my ultimate goal," said Mrs. Barrow.

Her dream seemed close to fruition in March 1998 when Greenville middle-school principal George Vaughn asked her if she wanted to become his new assistant principal. Mrs. Barrow excitedly responded that the position would be her "dream job." But instead of offering her the position, school officials later asked if she would first remove her children from their Christian school and place them in public school. Mrs. Barrow refused: "I just felt like it would have been very selfish to uproot them so I could advance in my career. I would not do that."

After school administrators hired another candidate, Mrs. Barrow paid a visit to then-Greenville superintendent Herman Smith. "I asked him, 'So as long as my boys attend the Christian school, I will never be able to be an administrator in Greenville?' And he said, 'That's right.' ... It was horrible. It was like everything I had worked for was shattered. I had all this love for the children I teach and yet my own children were being used against me," she said. In July, she filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a federal lawsuit in a Dallas district court. Both are pending.

Meanwhile, left-wing groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State are going on offense. They have warned school officials not to participate in student-led events like "See You at the Pole" (before-school, voluntary prayer around the flagpole) or after-hours religious baccalaureate services.

The legal cases and pressure plays raise the question, is there still room for Christian teachers in governmental education systems that establish one worldview, often known as secular humanism, as the one that must be taught? The answer is yes, as long as the First Amendment still exists, said Kelly Shackelford, a Texas religious freedoms lawyer helping to represent Mrs. Barrow. He cited a little-known part of the controversial Santa Fe Independent School District vs. Doe school prayer decision in which a federal appellate court banned student-led prayer before school football games. The ruling upheld a teacher's right to participate and "be recognized" at after-school religious baccalaureate services. Bottom line: "You don't sign away your religious freedoms just because you work in the public school," said Mr. Shackelford.

The Santa Fe case, of course, did not deal with the deeper questions about classroom integrity that Mr. LeVake's case raises, questions the Supreme Court may soon have a chance to answer.

Candi Cushman

Candi Cushman