Intelligent Design

Former state science director sues over intelligent design e-mail

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I don’t think she has a leg to stand on. The policy of her government employer was to remain neutral in any official capacity regarding the public controversy over evolution by chance vs. creation of life by design. The government should remain neutral on this subject by neither fostering or restricting differing beliefs on how life orginated and diversified. Clearly Comer, through her advertisement of Barbara Forrest’s lecture, using her employer’s computer network to broadcast it, and using her government email address and title to lend strength to the advertisement, violated a clear and constitutional government mandate regarding how employees are to conduct the government’s business. Forrest’s lecture, because it centers on creationism, even though critical of it, is still unconstitutional in public schools by current USSC decision. Any mention of creationism in the public schools, regardless of whether the mention is pro or con, is in fact the teaching of it.

Former state science director sues over intelligent design e-mail

AUSTIN – A former state science curriculum director on Wednesday sued the Texas Education Agency and Education Commissioner Robert Scott, alleging she was illegally fired for forwarding an e-mail about a lecture critical of the movement to promote intelligent design in science classes.

Christina Comer, who lost her job at the TEA last fall, said in a suit filed in federal court in Austin that she was terminated for contravening an “unconstitutional” policy at the agency. The policy required employees to be neutral on the subject of creationism – the biblical interpretation of the origin of humans, she said.

The policy was in force, according to the suit, even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that teaching creationism as science in public schools is illegal.

“The agency’s ‘neutrality’ policy has the purpose or effect of endorsing religion, and thus violates the Establishment Clause” of the U.S. Constitution, the lawsuit said.

Ms. Comer also said in her complaint that she was fired without due process after serving as the state science director for nearly 10 years.

Her lawsuit seeks a court order overturning the TEA’s neutrality policy on teaching creationism and declaring that her dismissal was illegal under the Constitution. The suit also seeks her reinstatement.

A spokeswoman for the education agency said TEA officials had no comment on the lawsuit because they had not seen it.

But officials previously said Ms. Comer’s e-mail about the lecture implied endorsement of the speaker’s position “on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral.” The speaker, Barbara Forrest, was the author of a book that asserted creationist politics were behind the national movement to get intelligent design taught in schools.

The theory of intelligent design holds that the origin of the universe and humans is best explained by an unknown “intelligent cause” rather than through evolutionary processes such as natural selection and random mutation. Critics – including at least one federal judge – contend that intelligent design is nothing more than creationism in disguise and has no business being taught in science classes.

TEA officials also said Ms. Comer made unauthorized remarks not connected to the debate over creationism and intelligent design during her tenure at the agency.

She left the agency as the State Board of Education was beginning to plan for a rewrite of the science curriculum in 2008. Curriculum standards now require that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – including the premise that humans evolved from lower forms of life – be taught in all high school biology classes.

16 Replies to “Former state science director sues over intelligent design e-mail

  1. 1
    O'Leary says:

    I haven’t followed the Comer case, but to judge from the press release quoted here, she is going to have a difficult time establishing that her agency’s behaviour was unconstitutional.

    Her government employer had a right to require her to be neutral on any subject her administrative superiors thought politically prudent (irrespective of her or their actual views).

    What is taught in the classroom isn’t even relevant.

    Of course, in these times, Comer may be able to get a judgment that essentially requires the state education agency to sponsor anti-ID cranks and conspiracy theorists as proof of its adherence to public policy.

    But even if she fails there, Comer might have a good lesser case for “condonance of cause” – meaning that her employer has always allowed her to promote her pet causes during office hours – and now suddenly she gets the hook!

    Here in Canada, regular courts tend to be sympathetic to such cases. Yes, permitting her to crusade on civil service time is shockingly bad public policy. But if she was always so privileged, her agency cannot now – without warning – punish her for doing what she was allowed and encouraged to do for years.

  2. 2
    Larry Fafarman says:

    O’Leary said (#1),

    I haven’t followed the Comer case

    Here is a whole bunch of articles about Chris Comer.

    Also, Chris Comer has her own post label in the post label list in the sidebar of my blog.

    Forrest’s lecture was not about creationism per se but was about her conspiracy theory (which she called “Inside Creationism’s Trojan Horse” in the title of her book) that intelligent design is really just creationism in disguise and is just a means of sneaking creationism into public schools. Even if the TEA is not required to remain neutral on creationism, the TEA is required to remain neutral on questions concerning ID’s scientific merits and ID’s relationship to creationism. The only thing that the complaint offered in support of the idea that ID is just creationism is the following quote from Kitzmiller v. Dover:

    In Kitzmiller, the court ruled that intelligent design is “creationism re-labeled.” 400 F. Supp. 2d at 722.

    — from the complaint on page 9

    Of course, that is just the opinion of a single federal district court judge and has virtually no precedential value.

    IMO Comer’s ouster was unfortunate because it has made her into a Darwinist martyr.

  3. 3
    DaveScot says:

    Denyse & Larry

    Texas is an at-will employment state. Employers can fire people for almost anything or no reason at all. I don’t see how Comer’s situation meets any of the discriminatory exceptions to at-will employment. This is a clearly a publicity stunt timed perfectly so it gets in the news to influence the upcoming public school curriculum and policy review.

    FYI – Texas is also a right-to-work state which means that unions are powerless here. If you look at the map of right-to-work states at the link above you’ll notice it’s almost a direct mapping to the notorious red/blue state maps from the last 4 presidential elections.

    Given that Texas has the second largest economy of any state in the Union, exceeded only by California (but our budget is balanced and has a surplus which is a good indicator of which of the two has the superior government and electorate) the outcome of the school curriculum here is very important. Texas buys so many textbooks for schools that authors want to tailor them for the state and then because so many of those Texas selects are purchased it drives down the cost of those through economy of scale and a lot of other states pick out the same textbooks to save money.

  4. 4
    Bob O'H says:

    The policy of her government employer was to remain neutral in any official capacity regarding the public controversy over evolution by chance vs. creation of life by design.

    The problem with using that argument to justify her sacking is that you then have to insist that information about both sides of the argument can’t be sent round. that way requiring neutrality is the same as requiring ignorance – you’re saying that nobody at the TEA is allowed to educate themselves on ID/creationism/evolution as part of their work. I think that would only be reasonable if the debate was irrelevant to education.

  5. 5
    Larry Fafarman says:

    DaveScot said (#3) —

    Texas is an at-will employment state.

    Whatever. As I said, Comer’s ouster has made her into a Darwinist martyr.

    This is a clearly a publicity stunt timed perfectly so it gets in the news to influence the upcoming public school curriculum and policy review.

    That may be true. Comer quit eight months ago, so why did she wait until now to sue?

    Bob O’H said (#4) —

    The problem with using that argument to justify her sacking is that you then have to insist that information about both sides of the argument can’t be sent round.

    The problem is that this was not about “information about both sides” — Forrest’s lecture was very one-sided. It wasn’t like a public debate about the issues. Would Comer have sent out an “FYI” notice about a Richard Weikart “From Darwin to Hitler” lecture?

  6. 6
    FtK says:

    Personally, I think firing her was kind of silly unless there are other underlying problems with her work habits.

    So, she sent an email around highlighting a lecture Forrest was giving…so what? Does that justify firing her?

    If the gal thinks she has a case, what they are essentially saying is that, in the future, any time an ID proponent is lecturing, ID sympathetic teachers would also be allowed to notify the staff and other educators in the area on the public school’s dime.

    Why fight that?

  7. 7
    Dahelmang says:

    I think the federal government shouldn’t have anything to do with schools at all. It’s really a no-win situation. All that money waisted for “administrative fees” is a real tax bummer.
    They really can’t stay “neutral” on a scientific topic, and they haven’t been anyway, so why are they claiming they are? Or are they just saying that they’re neutral about ID?

  8. 8
    Larry Fafarman says:

    Dave, that message “Your comment is awaiting moderation” often persists for a long time and may never go away. Does that message mean that my comment is not visible to other readers?

    Will you please take me off the comment moderation list? I have been good for a long time now.

    Took you out of the moderation list. Please keep comments civil and G-rated.-ds

  9. 9
    F2XL says:

    Hey FTK! Been a follower of your blog for sometime and noticed you’ve taken an interest in making an improved ID FAQ sheet. I started working on a similar project a couple weeks ago and am wondering if you (and anyone else interested) would like to join in on it. If so, message me through this:

    Glad I now feel safe to post on here with the risk of losing the credentials I’m working for. I had the wisdom to actually draw the Explanatory FIlter (e.g. “X” filter) on a white board, experimented with variations of the UPB and how many bits/base pairs/amino acids/letters they would use as a cutoff point.

    After leaving the room to grab an energy drink (this all happened at 4 am) I came back to see two professors (one zoology professor, and a philosophy professor whom he tags along with) staring at the board in dismay asking who the hell was experimenting with something so dangerous, diabolical, delusional, damning…….

    You get the idea. I came within footsteps of losing my career. Glad I have a personal reason to celebrate my independence.

    Boy is my academic life nerve-racking. 😀

  10. 10
    Foxfier says:

    Re: #4/5
    Generally, gov’t/work emails aren’t to be used for private promotion of any cause– if she thought it was worthy of official notice, she should’ve taken it up the chain.

    This prevents multiple problems, including implied support, multiple copies of an email (EVIL forwards!) and thus drags on the email system.

  11. 11
    StephenB says:

    —–whisper-in-wind to Denyse: “Well, you are Candian, so I will forgive your lack of aquiantance with our Constitution. But as I point out in a previous post, Texas is not allowed neutrality in matters of Creationism. Texas is required by the Supreme Court to treat Creationism as religion.”

    Since you are evidently an American, you ought to be more familiar with the Constitution that you allude to. Our constitution states that our government shall pass NO LAW with respect to the establishment of religion. That means exactly what it says—pass no laws. That means it should keep its grubby hands off all religious matters. Therefore, the Supreme Court violates the constitution every time it rules on matters like these.

    Also, be advised that, while the Supreme Court has defined creationism, it has not ruled on the matter of intelligent design. If you choose to labor under the misconception that ID is synonymous with creationism, this is your privilege, but you should not project that misconception on to the Supreme Court, which is logically challenged enough as it is.

  12. 12
    F2XL says:

    “Since ID is both religion and not science, from the vanatage point of ALL GOVERNMENTS, teachers would not be allowed to say anything contradictory to this.”

    If you truly believe ID is both religion and not science, then do what no design critic has ever done and provide evidence for this.

    Feel free to cite the wedge document or the early panda’s drafts, both of which have had to be addressed numerous times by design theorists as not being what Barbara Forrest says they are.

  13. 13
    F2XL says:

    “If the State of Texas is using the appearance of neutrality to advance a religious agenda, as was the case in Dover, they will be ruled against.”

    So why did Barbara Forrest get a free ride in that ruling???

  14. 14
    DaveScot says:

    Dear Church Burnin’ Ebola Boys,

    It’s currently legal to teach intelligent design in any public school except for the Dover district.

    What isn’t legal is scientific creationism which is easily distinguished from ID in that it positively asserts that everything in Genesis is the literal truth. ID acknowledges the possibility of an old earth and descent with modification from a comman ancestor.

    You boys either need a single USSC decision banning the teaching of ID or a whole boatload of lower court decisions.

    Comer failed to follow the marching orders given by her employer and was canned for it. Happens all the time.

    Would I have objected if she been promoting a Demski lecture? No. But I didn’t object to Comer promoting Forrest’s lecture either. All I’m doing is supporting the state of Texas in having the right to control what Texas state employees do when they’re either on the clock or representing themselves as gov’t employee. Comer was spending my tax dollars in a way that was proscribed by higher ranking members of our gov’t. If she can’t follow the orders of her duly elected or appointed superiors she has no business being a gov’t employee. If she wants to be an evolution crusader she needs to go elsewhere to do it.

  15. 15
    Larry Fafarman says:

    The basic issue is whether it is OK for the Texas Education Agency to have a policy of neutrality towards issues of upcoming public hearings. I say that the answer is yes. Intelligent design, weaknesses of evolution, other criticisms of evolution, “teach the controversy,” and even creationism are all entitled to a fair hearing (even though the Supreme Court banned teaching of creationism in public schools, someone might argue that the courts should be challenged on that issue). There are also the questions of whether there should be evolution-disclaimer statements and whether students should be merely informed of the existence of particular criticisms of evolution. If including any of these things in the curriculum is a bad idea, that should come out in the hearings. The TEA should have an open mind. And Barbara Forrest’s lecture contained ugly bigoted charges of a conspiracy and guilt by association. It is a disgrace that her testimony was accepted in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial.

    I think that Comer’s legal representation is pro bono. The complaint lists three attorneys from out of state (Washington, DC) and one in-state attorney, all from branches of the same law firm. Sponsorship of out-of-state attorneys by local attorneys is often a requirement to help prevent the out-of-state attorneys from making mistakes regarding local court rules and local precedents. I think that if Comer were paying her own way, she would not have so many attorneys and would not have out-of-state attorneys.

    FtK said (#6) —

    If the gal thinks she has a case, what they are essentially saying is that, in the future, any time an ID proponent is lecturing, ID sympathetic teachers would also be allowed to notify the staff and other educators in the area on the public school’s dime.

    Good point. The complaint’s “prayer for relief” (page 19 — I hate that high-falutin use of the word “prayer”) does not ask the court to prohibit the TEA from promoting intelligent design — the complaint only asks the court to prohibit the TEA from promoting creationism:

    d. an injunction against the Agency’s having, expressing, or imposing through any means, a policy of “neutrality” with respect to the teaching of creationism in the Texas public schools, or a policy that expressly or implicitly equates evolution and creationism, or that in any way credits creationism as a valid scientific theory;

    Comer should have gotten just a warning. Dumping her has turned her into a Darwinist martyr.

    Also, the TEA gave other reasons for dumping her — see Exhibit B of the complaint.

  16. 16
    DaveScot says:

    The suit is ridiculous. Since when did termination of employment become a 14th amendment “due process” issue? By professing neutrality the state is respecting both the freedom and establishment clauses. Incredible. FAIL.

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