The mission of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sounds very commendable, and worthy of a nod on Martin Luther King Day. After all, the whole cause of civil rights that Dr. King stood for is about protecting the freedom to believe, and to be, as you are, safe from harassment, intimidation, and discrimination. Americans United, or AU, focuses on the religious aspect of civil liberties, protecting religion from the state and vice versa, safeguarding freedom of conscience and conviction.
Or anyway, that’s the idea in theory.
Meet Cecil R. Phillips, a retired engineer in Louisiana who fell afoul of his local chapter of AU and found himself summarily barred from future meetings, his membership in AU rescinded and membership fee returned. What did he do to merit this treatment?
Go ahead and listen to Casey Luskin’s excellent and eye-opening interview with Mr. Phillips. The trouble started at a chapter meeting back in October, when the subject of evolution came up and Phillips voiced his doubts about the standard Darwinian story. He has read up on intelligent design and finds Michael Behe’s argument from irreducible complexity to be particularly provocative and convincing. By his own account, he’s not a particularly religious person. The scientific ideas are what interest him.
This was evidently too much for somebody, identity unknown, who was present at the meeting. A couple of months later Phillips received a letter from AU headquarters in Washington, DC, without a signature but identified as having been authored by “National Field Department on Behalf of Concerned Chapter Members.”
The letter informed Phillips that AU’s mission “includes protecting public school students from the advancement of religious ideas as science in the classroom.” It charged him with promoting “intelligent design creationism,” in violation of that mission, and disinvited him from attending future meeting as this would have
a counterproductive effect on the group’s ability to conduct business in an atmosphere of openness and comfort.
Therefore, your presence is no longer welcome at our meetings, and your membership in our organization has been rescinded.
You can find a reproduction of the letter here. As you’ll hear in Casey’s interview with him, Phillips sounds like a very mild-mannered guy. Soft-spoken, thoughtful and articulate. Hardly threatening, or so you would think. Obviously someone felt so threatened by this gentleman, tarred as a “creationist” (which he’s emphatically not), that he or she took up the matter with the national office. There someone else, in turn, didn’t have the guts to sign his or her name on the letter that barred Cecil Phillips from future participation in AU. Coward.
This is really shameful, and telling. As we were reminded in the final and likewise shameful resolution of the David Coppedge matter last week, evolution is a civil-rights issue as much as it is a scientific one. Coppedge’s right to dissent from Darwinian orthodoxy was crushed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the judge in the case accepted NASA’s slickly constructed defense, rubber-stamped it, denying him the justice of what should have been total vindication.
Coppedge and his attorney cast the case in terms of religious-viewpoint discrimination. That was because JPL, like Americans United, can’t make the proper distinction between intelligent design and religion. The government-funded lab demoted and then terminated Coppedge for advocating his scientific views and for protesting when his rights were trampled on.
Did Americans United have anything to say about that? No.
For every Cecil Phillips, for every David Coppedge, there are countless other people who share their scientific doubts about Darwin, their openness to seeing evidence of design in nature, but who keep their views to themselves in a strategy of self-defense. They are teachers, professors, students, and other thoughtful open-minded citizens, who can’t exercise their right to advocate a particular scientific view. They reasonably fear censorship and bullying.
When folks like the National Center for Science Education tell you there’s “no controversy,” “no debate” about Darwinian evolution, that’s true only insofar as the controversy and the debate are deliberately suppressed through intimidation. Civil-liberties organizations like AU and the ACLU ought to be in the thick of the fight to protect free-expression rights for Darwin doubters. Instead, they stand firmly with the censors and the bullies.
Image credit: March on Washington/Wikipedia.