Court Rules Against Texas Education Employee Forced To Resign Over Forwarded Email

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans last week upheld a district court decision that a policy of the Texas Education Agency requiring employees to be neutral on the issue of “evolution and creationism” is not unconstitutional.

This whole story started way back when when the Texas Board of Education battle over its education curriculum was just beginning. Christine Comer was one of the first victims of the whole insanity of the process. A tenth-generation Texan, Comer had served as the Texas Education Agency’s director of science for nine years and had previously worked as a middle-school science teacher for twenty-seven years. She inadvertently stepped into a political brouhaha when she used her agency e-mail account in late 2007 to forward a message from the National Center for Science Education, under the subject heading “FYI.” An official, outraged over the email, demanded that Comer resign from her position.

The issue? The email was about an upcoming talk by Barbara Forrest, a philosopher of science and one of the creationists’ most hated enemies. Forrest wrote, along with her co-author Paul R. Gross, Creationism’s Trojan Horse, a damning and carefully documented account of “intelligent design’s” creationist links. In the 2005 intelligent design trial of Kitzmiller v. Dover, Forrest was the defendants’ most feared witness, who testified about the Wedge Document, an internal memo in which the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, the nation’s leading proponent of intelligent design, outlined a public-relations strategy to destroy “scientific materialism” and affirm the idea that human beings are created in the image of God.

After Comer forwarded the email, Lizzette Reynolds, a TEA hire who had worked as an advisor to Gov. George W. Bush, recommended that Comer be fired, explaining that creationism and evolution are subjects “on which the agency must remain neutral. It is essential that Ms. Comer support the integrity of the upcoming TEKS [Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills] development and revision process and ensure that it does not appear in any way that she is advocating for any given position or stance,” it read.

I interviewed Comer back in 2007 for the Washington Spectator soon after she resigned and she struck me as someone who was genuinely concerned about education. She filed suit in 2008, saying that the state’s decision was a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The Texas court did not agree. Comer appealed.

In the three-panel judge decision, the appeals court wrote, “Upon review of the record and applicable law, we cannot conclude that TEA’s neutrality policy has the ‘primary effect’ of advancing religion. The fact that Comer and other TEA employees cannot speak out for or against possible subjects to be included in the curriculum… does not primarily advance religion, but rather, serves to preserve TEA’s administrative role in facilitating the curriculum review process for the Board… Thus, we find it hard to imagine circumstances in which a TEA employee’s inability to publicly speak out for or against a potential subject for the Texas curriculum would be construed or perceived as the State’s endorsement of a particular religion.”

The full decision can be read here.

Steve Schafersman of the Texas Citizens for Science, a bulldog on these issues, disagrees with the court’s decision. The National Center for Science Education’s coverage is here.

Meanwhile, fast forward a few years, the Texas Board of Education has pushed through creationist-friendly language into the science curriculum standards and run roughshod over the social studies standards, inserting Christian exceptionalism propaganda throughout.