Rice student tackles church/state issues

Rice University sophomore Zack Kopplin will take the issue of separation of church and state head-on when he speaks Aug. 18 at the monthly gathering of the Humanists of Houston.

Kopplin will discuss his efforts to halt what he argues is creationist legislation in his home state of Louisiana. The talk begins at 1 p.m. at the Bayland Community Center, 6400 Bissonnet St.

Zack Kopplin

Zack Kopplin

The subject matter is not new to Kopplin, who at 19 has become a noted spokesman for keeping anti-evolution teachings out of schools. While a high school senior, he was successful in convincing the Louisiana Department of Education to retain books that taught evolution in the face “of creationists who strongly opposed this action,” he wrote.

His work in Louisiana earned him a wealth of media attention as well as the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award and the National Center for Science Education’s Friend of Darwin Award.

Kopplin, a history major and resident of Hanszen College, is working on an effort to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), which allows science teachers to incorporate materials outside the approved curriculum (seen by critics as a way to bring creationism into the classroom), and the state’s recently enacted school voucher system, which he sees as an effort to redirect public funds to private schools that teach creationism.

“They’ve got the biggest reform in the country, but they’ve done it so badly that it’s now permanently tainted,” Kopplin said of the legislation, which was upheld by the Louisiana Supreme Court this week.

“Mother Jones (magazine), among others, went into the specifics and found the (voucher-approved) schools are teaching dragons were real,” he said, citing another instance in which a textbook used the Loch Ness monster as proof that evolution is not real.

“The even more disturbing ones were in the history class,” Kopplin said. “They were teaching the Ku Klux Klan was a moral institution and the Trail of Tears was used to bring Indians to Christ. It’s disturbing; that’s what we’re spending $8,000 a student to take. … It’s absolute insanity.”

Kopplin’s campaign began as a senior-class project in Baton Rouge. His father, Andy Kopplin ‘88, is deputy mayor of New Orleans and a former chief of staff to two Louisiana governors, and his mother, Andrea Neighbours ‘86, is a writer. Both are Rice alumni.

“No one ever believed (the LSEA) was going to pass,” he said. “It was ridiculous. The governor (Bobby Jindal) is a Brown-educated biology major. But it overwhelmingly passed and the governor signed it.

“I assumed someone would deal with it, and I didn’t think it would last a year,” Kopplin said. When it came time to choose a senior project, he decided to deal with it himself.

He reached out to author and Southeastern Louisiana University professor Barbara Forrest, “one of the top experts in the creationism/evolution fight,” he said of his mentor. “She was an expert witness in the last big trial over it, Kitzmiller vs. Dover in Pennsylvania, which essentially invalidated intelligent design. She happened to live in Louisiana, about 20 minutes from me.”

Kopplin is also interested in the work of the Texas Board of Education, which has in recent years held the line in a controversial battle over the content of science textbooks. Because of Texas’ size, it has strong influence over the content of texts distributed to schools throughout the nation, Kopplin said.

“The legislative session is coming up in the spring, and inevitably that’s going to bring a creationism law. It always does,” he said. “At least an attempt. Texas doesn’t seem to be as graceful as Louisiana in their legislative language. … Louisiana’s law is very clever. It will take us years to find all the pieces for a challenge to it.”




About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.