UPDATE: David Hillis just finished meeting with the committee in charge of designating these charities and sent me this dispiriting email:
The State Policy Committee, which oversees the State Employees Charitable Campaign, “thanked me” for “bringing the problem of the ICR listing to their attention”, and noted that “hundreds of other charities on the state list are similarly problematic” regarding the state law requiring groups to provide health and human services. They agreed that it is a problem, but noted that their committee is being dissolved, and that the new Texas Sunset Advisory Commission will take over overseeing the list next year. They declined to take any action, and left it up to the TSAC to fix next year. In my opinion, they demonstrated an amazing lack of responsibility to do what they were appointed to do.
Not surprising, perhaps, but an amazing example of ineffectiveness by a state-appointed committee.
The latest evolution-related travesty to come out of Texas—and there have been many—involves a bizarre discovery by UT Austin biology professor David Hillis, who has been featured on this website. Poring over a list of state-designated charities providing “direct or indirect health and human services”, Hillis discovered an odd inclusion: the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). Like the other “charities” on that list, the ICR is approved for state employee donations, which can come as a direct deductions from the employee’s payroll.
“The Institute for Creation Research is an anti-science organization,” Hillis said. “They work to undermine the mission of the university and of science in general, and especially the science that is the very basis for health and human services. How could such an organization possibly be listed as a charitable organization to be supported by state employees?”
Officials of the institute did not respond to a request for comment.
The organization’s listing in a brochure distributed to state employees offers the following description: “Science strongly supports the Bible’s authority and accuracy. With scientific research, education programs, and media presentations, we equip Christians to stand for the Truth.”
If you’ve been involved in fighting creationism, you’ll know that the ICR, headed by Henry Morris, was once a very influential outfit (Ken Ham once worked for them). The ICR’s metier was “scientific creationism,” the view that the very facts of science actually supported the narrative of the Bible.
One of the ICR’s “classic” publications was Morris and Whitcomb’s The Genesis Flood, arguing that the facts of geology supported the story of Noah’s flood (Morris was a hydraulic engineer). Another book, which I used as a text when I taught “Evolution vs. Creationism” at the University of Maryland, was Scientific Creationism, which came in two versions, one including religious material and the other, intended for public school classrooms, leaving out the Jesus stuff.
(I should say a word about that class, which was one of the most engaging teaching experiences I’ve ever had. It was a nonmajors course intended to inspire students to think critically about evolution and creationism. Every Monday I would lecture as myself, giving the evidence for one aspect of evolution, such as radiometric dating or the fossil record. On Wednesday I would lecture as a creationist, trying to overturn all the stuff that crazy evolution guy said on Monday. [I was very well versed in creationist arguments.] This, of course, deeply confused the students. On Friday we would all sit down and talk about the conflicting viewpoints, trying to adjudicate them. [We also had debates, in which I assigned all the creationist students to defend evolution, and the evolution-accepting students to defend creationism.] And although the class began with a nearly equal mixture of evolution-accepters and evolution-deniers among the students, by the end of the class the discussions had convinced more than half of the creationists of the truth of evolution. It was a deeply satisfying result.)
At any rate, the ICR is now headed by Morris’s son, John D. Morris, and has fallen on hard times since “scientific creationism” became supplanted by ID as the au courant form of creationism.
One would think that allowing state payroll deductions for donations to a creationist organization would violate the First Amendment, but other religious organizations are also on the list.
Charities included in the program range from the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund , which supports injured or ill service members, to Vegan Outreach , which promotes “ethical eating.” A number of charities have religious leanings, including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Jewish Community Association of Austin.
But scientists are arguing—and this may be a tactical mistake—that the ICR is too religious.
But the Institute for Creation Research espouses such a strongly sectarian view of the origin of life that its inclusion “was enough to get me riled up,” said Daniel Bolnick , an associate professor of integrative biology at UT who studies the evolution of autoimmune disorders. “It gives them legitimacy they really don’t deserve.”
John Hoberman, a UT professor of Germanic studies, said the institute is “an adversary of the values a research university stands for” and that its activities “do not qualify as the sort of humanitarian activity we associate with charity in the proper sense of the word.”
Perhaps it would be better just to mount a general First-Amendment challenge on the grounds that the state should not be involved in promulgating religion of any sort. The committee that decides who’s on the list is electing a new chairman this week, and Hillis and other UT biology faculty have filed a formal complaint against the ICR’s inclusion.
The response: according to the Texas Freedom Network, a state representative, Leo Berman, has called for Hillis—a tenured full professor, highly respected evolutionary biologist, and member of the National Academy of Sciences, to be fired!
Berman is a piece of work:
Rep. Berman on Thursday sent a statement to the Austin-based political news website Quorum Report (subscription required), charging that Prof. Hillis “fears debate on evolution vs. creationism” and that “Godly professors of science who are creationists fear retribution” from scientists like Hillis:
“Professor Hillis would do well to take a sabbatical from science and do a little research in the social studies. … The meaning of Academy, or University, or College, is a place to seek the truth. How can you determine the truth when you only hear from a Professor Hillis and his joy of shoving evolution down someone’s throat.
If I were Chancellor, I would fire him for trying to deny individuals of their first amendment rights. As a legislator, I think removing tenure if he has tenure and putting him back to work, would be the best thing the state can do.”
Rep. Berman is one of the most extreme right-wing lawmakers in Texas. This past spring, for example, he promoted anti-Muslim hysteria by proposing legislation he said would ban Sharia law in Texas (even though the First Amendment already bars religion-based laws). His legislation failed to pass. He also insists that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States and has even suggested that the president’s election represented “God’s punishment on us.”
Ceiling Cat bless America, and best of luck to Dave and his colleagues. They might not win the battle, but I’m sure Hillis’s job is safe!