Louisiana's March Backward on Religious Freedom

Louisiana has made it easier for teachers to push religion on their students.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit on behalf of C.C. Lane, the Buddhist sixth-grader who says officials at his school in Negreet, Louisiana, violated his rights by disparaging him for not being a Christian. I think I sort of know how he feels.

In my high school in Lafayette, Louisiana in the late 1970s, each day began with the student council president, speaking on the public-address system, asking everyone to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer. My family was non-religious, and while I would remain silent for the prayer, my older brother would sit for it. His protest drew curiosity but not derision, and certainly not from teachers or administrators.

When my brother, a champion orator who competed in speaking competitions around the state, changed his topic to "Why I am an atheist," he stopped winning trophies, until he changed it again. But no one gave him a hard time for the oration.

The biology teacher in our school always devoted a full day of class to discussing the blessings of Jesus Christ. My fellow students appreciated that there was something not quite right about this, even if few dreaded it as much as I did. When the day came, a student asked if God would forgive African tribes who didn't know any better than to worship a big rock. When I said he should question whether the big rock would forgive him for worshiping Jesus, there was stunned silence, but no recrimination.

Compare this to Lane's experience. According to the ACLU complaint, Lane's teacher told her students that evolution is a "stupid" theory that "stupid people made up," and also called Buddhism stupid. When Lane didn't answer "Isn't it amazing what the ____ has made?" on a science test with "Lord," his teacher scolded him in front of the class.

When Lane's parents complained to the school superintendent, she suggested the boy change his religion or switch to a school with more Asians. (He is of Thai descent.) The superintendent then sent Lane's principal a letter supporting the teachers for following their strong religious beliefs; the principal read it to the entire school.

That's a different environment from when I was a student. The sense then was that the religiosity, though pervasive, wasn't altogether legitimate. Minorities like my brothers and me were made to feel awkward, but we weren't victimized. We had the chance to stake out our own position.

The passage of the Louisiana Science Education Act in 2008 changed that. The law, the first of its kind in the U.S., permits public school teachers to use "supplemental" materials to "help students understand, analyze, critique and review scientific theories." In reality, it provides a loophole for teaching creationism and challenging scientific theories such as evolution and the big bang. Governor Bobby Jindal has even said he approves of the teaching of creationism.

Supporters of the law have defended it against repeal efforts, saying only one person, education activist Zack Kopplin, a Louisiana high school graduate, has complained about it. With C.C. Lane's suit, they can no longer pretend the law is innocuous.

(Lisa Beyer is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow her on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.