How Mike Johnson Helped Open The Door To Creationism In Louisiana Public Schools

The House speaker is known for his work as a Christian-right operative. This is how he became the "legal go-to guy" to put creationism into public schools.
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost Photo:Getty Images

Speaker Mike Johnson’s (R-La.) elevation to the heights of the U.S. House of Representatives marked one of the most significant achievements of the religious right since its splash onto the political scene in the late 20th century. It had successfully placed a true believer who worked inside its movement into one of the most important political offices in the country.

And with him, he brought the bona fides of a record of advancing one of the movement’s most important goals: putting Christianity back into every facet of public life.

Johnson has a long history of supporting and promoting creationist causes, acting as a lawyer for the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter in Kentucky where dinosaurs are seen as passengers on a re-creation of Noah’s Ark, as previously reported by HuffPost. But perhaps most important is his key role as a lawyer for the religious-right forces in Louisiana, which successfully passed legislation enabling teachers to inject creationism into public school classrooms and aided his rise to become speaker of the House.

When the law faced challenges to its implementation and schools faced lawsuits for teaching creationism, Johnson, who worked as a senior litigator for the Alliance Defending Freedom and sat on the Louisiana Family Forum’s attorneys resources council, was the one to swoop in with legal memos, letters threatening lawsuits, and prayer rallies on behalf of the religious-right groups opposed to secular education. Johnson did not reply to HuffPost’s request for comment on this story.

“Johnson was always their legal go-to guy,” said Barbara Forrest, a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University who helped lead the opposition to creationism in schools in the state and clashed with the Louisiana Family Forum. “They knew that they could call on him.”

Rep. Mike Johnson is sworn in as House speaker at the Capitol in Washington on Oct. 25.
Rep. Mike Johnson is sworn in as House speaker at the Capitol in Washington on Oct. 25.
TOM BRENNER via Getty Images

Johnson’s role defending creationism in Louisiana public schools emerged in the late 2000s. Louisiana, one of the most religious states in the country, had long been a focal point in fights over creationism when, in 2008, the state passed the Louisiana Science Education Act, which enabled teachers to use supplemental materials to counter evolution with creationist theories in science classes. It was part of a larger strategy built over years of public back-and-forth about how much religion was to be permitted in schools; the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in Edwards v. Aguillard had ruled that it was unconstitutional to require schools to teach creationism alongside evolution.

The decision led creationists to pivot their focus, from young-Earth theories designed around the Biblical story of creation to injecting “intelligent design,” the idea that evolution is a process directed by God, into public school science classes. This was formalized in the 1990s as a “wedge” strategy aimed at getting God back into the classroom through “teaching the controversy” over evolution via intelligent design. But then in 2005’s Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, a federal district court judge in Pennsylvania rejected such an intelligent design scheme as an impermissible injection of religion.

Down in Louisiana, though, Johnson’s allies were finding a new way to get creationism into public schools — by, as Johnson would do, stripping out any language that they believed could be perceived as connected to religion.

The Louisiana Science Education Act was largely written by Johnson’s close allies in the Louisiana Family Forum, founded in 2002 by the Rev. Gene Mills and Tony Perkins as a local offshoot of the religious-right group Focus on the Family, and promoted by retired Baton Rouge Judge Darrell White, the state’s most fervent creationism advocate. The law took its inspiration from a 2004 science curriculum proposal drawn up by White that asserted not creationism, but a goal to “help students review, analyze, and critique the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories.” The actual intent was clear: White is an ardent creationist prone to attacking “Darwinists” and “secular humanists” while claiming, like Johnson, that school shootings result from the teaching of evolution.

An initial draft of the guidance on how schools should implement the Science Education Act — put together by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE — included a line designed to comply with the Supreme Court’s Edwards ruling. “Materials that teach creationism or intelligent design or that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind shall be prohibited for use in science classes,” the guidance’s original language stated.

Former President Donald Trump (left) shakes hands with Tony Perkins, who helped found the Louisiana Family Forum. Mike Johnson acted as a lawyer for the Louisiana Family Forum as it pushed creationism in state public schools.
Former President Donald Trump (left) shakes hands with Tony Perkins, who helped found the Louisiana Family Forum. Mike Johnson acted as a lawyer for the Louisiana Family Forum as it pushed creationism in state public schools.
Jose Luis Magana via Associated Press

That’s when the Louisiana Family Forum went into action, deploying Johnson in a key role as the voice of the well-financed and resourced Alliance Defending Freedom to threaten lawsuits if the language wasn’t changed.

“Johnson was very involved in it,” said Glenn Branch, a deputy director for the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that actively opposed the enactment of the Louisiana Science Education Act. “He’s been described as one of Mills’ closest allies.”

“BESE was subjected to considerable pressure to implement that policy in a way that favored creationism,” Forrest said. Mills, who is the group’s leader, and one of the law’s sponsors, then-state Sen. Ben Nevers, a Democrat, met with BESE staff members behind closed doors to pressure them to remove the language, and summoned pro-creationist teachers and lawyers with the Alliance Defending Freedom to testify before the board.

Ahead of the final board vote to approve the implementing language, the forum presented the board with a letter from Johnson, threatening a First Amendment religious discrimination lawsuit if the language wasn’t removed.

Johnson’s letter explained that his organization had the resources — “1,200 attorneys” — and experience litigating such cases “throughout Louisiana, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and beyond” to bring a pricey lawsuit against the board. He suggested that the language banning creationism would “likely subject the Board to a costly legal challenge,” and offered his own services to defend the board pro bono if it did what he wanted and removed the language.

“It was a threat,” Forrest said. “I saw it as a threat.”

BESE caved. It went on to remove the language, clearing the way for teachers to bring supplemental materials teaching creationism in the state’s public schools.

“[BESE] is to be commended, and Louisiana is open for business,” Mills said in a statement afterward.

Since the law only allowed the optional introduction of supplementary materials challenging evolution with creationist theories, it has been hard to track the law’s usage in the decade-plus since its enactment.

“The same reason that makes it difficult to challenge the constitutionality of the Louisiana Science Education Act is the same reason that no one knows how effective [the law] is,” Branch said.

Retired Judge Darrell White provides constitutional guidance written by Mike Johnson as he pushes Louisiana school boards to teach creationism.
Retired Judge Darrell White provides constitutional guidance written by Mike Johnson as he pushes Louisiana school boards to teach creationism.
Emails obtained by Zack Kopplin

The most ready evidence comes from Zack Kopplin, a journalist and activist who first launched a campaign to overturn the law as part of his senior high school project in 2010, and which he continued into college. Kopplin, acting as a reporter, interviewed students and filed Freedom of Information requests revealing multiple school districts where creationism was being taught with the law used as justification.

After BESE approved the implementing language pushed by Johnson, White and Mills, Johnson went to work to protect teachers and school administrators teaching creationism.

In his continued efforts to get more parish districts to adopt his proposal endorsing the teaching of creationism, White employed Johnson’s legal counsel.

The two appeared at a prayer rally together in 2011, and when White reached out to teachers and school boards to get them to teach creationism in 2012, he came armed with a memo written and signed by Johnson providing “constitutional sufficiency” in support of putting creationist materials in classrooms, according to emails obtained by Kopplin.

Johnson was also listed as a recipient in one email White sent to his allies coordinating the effort to get more school districts to teach creationism alongside creationist proponents like an assistant principal named Danny Pennington and the Louisiana Family Forum’s Mills and Lennie Ditoro.

White, on a religious-right podcast in 2023, described Johnson’s views as hewing closely to his own.

“He opposes, as do I, secularism — secular humanism — that is to say, a religion, and it is a religion, that [says] the universe was not created but rather just emerged,” White said.

As Johnson worked with White in Louisiana, he also signed on as the lawyer for another creationist cause up north in Kentucky: the Creation Museum, which opened in 2016. The museum is owned by Ken Ham, the head of the fundamentalist group Answers in Genesis and one of the most well-known public faces of young-Earth creationism, and it features the Ark Encounter, a “full-scale” re-creation of Noah’s Ark that shows dinosaurs riding alongside humans. Johnson helped Ham sue the state after the government withdrew tourism subsidies for the Ark Encounter project.

The two remained close afterward, with Johnson hosting Ham on multiple podcasts while praising the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum as “one way to bring people to this recognition of the truth, that what we read in the Bible are actual historical events.”

Children look into a cage containing model baby dinosaurs inside a replica Noah's Ark at the Ark Encounter theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky.
Children look into a cage containing model baby dinosaurs inside a replica Noah's Ark at the Ark Encounter theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky.
John Minchillo via Associated Press

Back in Louisiana, Johnson emerged again in 2015 to defend the Bossier Parish school district after the American Civil Liberties Union’s state affiliate sent a letter to the school board about allegations that teachers and administrators were promoting Christianity at Airline High School, including teaching creationism. Johnson, then in the state Legislature, helped organize a large prayer rally at the school that received national coverage on Fox News and across conservative media.

Students at the school told Kopplin, then writing for Slate, that teachers would go on “religious rants,” try “to convert everyone in class” and make “students read Bible passages in class.”

“[One] of our science teachers got in trouble last year for teaching evolution as a fact,” a student told Kopplin.

The ACLU ultimately did not sue, but Americans United for Separation of Church and State did sue the school district in 2018, and won a consent decree in 2019 preventing administrators and teachers from proselytizing and teaching creationism.

Kopplin, who is now an investigative reporter at the Government Accountability Project, met Johnson at the Airline High School rally.

“He’s an operator,” Kopplin summed up. “He’s very polite, very eager to have me write about it.”

While Kopplin said that Johnson’s allies at the Louisiana Family Forum were “incredibly personally nasty to me,” including by writing articles attacking his parents for how they raised him, Johnson was not.

“Let me say this: There’s a reason he’s speaker of the House and not those guys,” Kopplin said. “But he’s from the same world, from the same goals.”

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