Doubting Darwin: Faribault teacher/coach Rod LeVake loses in Supreme Court but keeps the faith
By Bruce Strand, 2002
Rod LeVake’s main ambition came true four years ago when he finally got his chance to teach high school biology in Faribault, after 13 years in junior high general science.
A cloud, however, was looming. LeVake did not see eye-to-eye with Charles Darwin.
“I just love biology. I love the complexities of life,” said LeVake, whose opening came when a teacher retired. “I told me students the first day that this was a dream come true for me, to teach biology. Of course, they all stared at me like I was strange.”
A devout Christian, LeVake had become skeptical of the theory of evolution, on both spiritual and scientific grounds. After he discussed the matter informally with FHS colleagues, the word got around and LeVake was asked to submit a position paper on how he intended to teach evolution and his views on the theory.
LeVake, also a football coach who played line on a St. John’s national champion team, stated that he would teach evolution as required, but wanted to included a critique on its validity and let students know that not all scientists agreed with Darwin’s scenarios.
The administration, which, like most public school bodies, was convinced of the theory’s merits and concerned about the possibility of a teacher dispensing religious doctrine in the classroom, told LeVake he could not teach biology after all.
This happened in April of 1998, near the end of the school year. LeVake was re-assigned to ninth-grade science, where he remains today. His long-coveted job as biology teacher lasted just less than a year due to that one principal on which he refused to compromise.
LeVake sued the school district for at least $50,000 in damages and for reinstatement as a biology teacher, citing first-amendment rights. He wrote letters to conservative groups for advice and wound up being represented by Francis Manion, a Kentucky attorney affiliated with Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice.
The courts, one by one, agreed with the school. The district court threw out his case. The state appellate court ruled that the teacher must teach what the school wants him to. The state Supreme Court agreed. Two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case, so it was all over.
“I never had the chance to say anything to a jury in a courtroom, and now I never will,” LeVake lamented. “Oh, I would have loved to do that.”
A pleasant and well-liked man, LeVae grew up in a church-going family of four in Mankato, where his father was a professor at the university. He says he never had any wild lasts to sow, no rebellious period, and always enjoyed school and church. He played football, basketball and golf for Mankato High School and was a member of the band.
“I became a Christian when I was a senior,” said LeVake. “I just figured out there was a God and that He has expectations of me.”
LeVake, an assistant football coach here, attended St, John’s University and played offensive guard on the football team for four years. His Johnnies won the NCAA Division III championship in 1976, beating Towson State of Baltimore 31-28 in the nationally-televised finals with a last-second field goal.
“I was also the guy who hiked the ball on the field goal,” related LeVake.
After college, LeVake arrived at Faribault, where he and wife Chris have raised three sons and a daughter.
The Daily News has followed LeVake’s case for four years but had never conducted an extensive interview with him until last Saturday. LeVake was happy to oblige; he wants to make sure locals understand both his convictions and his side of the facts of the his case.
“I do feel wronged, but I’m not bitter,” he said. “I taught the curriculum as I was supposed to. I never intended to teach religion in the classroom.”
LeVake’s case drew an article in Time magazine in July 2000, a segment on CNN, and several Star-Tribune dispatches.
“I am shocked that it went this far,” said LeVake. “I get the impression that all across the country this (questioning evolution) is right under the surface, that people think this is an issue.”
He said the mainstream coverage was fair and accurate as it went, but didn’t give him a chance to state his case.
There were also interviews with Christian publications including Teachers in Focus, World Magazine and Christian Chronicle, where he discussed the issues at length. He was the guest of a sympathetic Jason Lewis, a fierce critic of public schools, on KSTP radio two weeks ago.
The courts and mainstream media, LeVake contends, never fully understood the case.
“People thought I wanted to teach creationism, but what I wanted to do was teach a critique of evolution theory. I thought that was the honest thing to do, that the way you should teach science was to show both sides.”
In the courts, he said, the opposition “tries to confused the issue, that’s their best offense.” They say, “This guy is a nut. He wants to teach creation science in biology class.”
If it were all up to him, LeVake said, he would definitely teach evolution “because it is so pervasive in our society and the kids need to know what it is,” and would inform students about scientists who are skeptical about Darwin.
We asked obvious question for LeVake: Why become a biology teacher if you don’t believe something as basic as evolutionary theory? He responded that he loves everything about biology except the evolution part.
He relishes describing to students, for instance, all the woodpecker elements needed to do its job: the shock absorber between the skull and his brain, the bristles in the tail feathers for support, two toes up and two toes down to hang on the three, the long tongue to snatch ants that’s stored away when not in use by wrapping it all the way around its head between the skull and skin.
And the giraffe with its long neck that requires such a huge heart, two and a half feet in size, which produces so much pressure to pump blood to his head that when it needs to lower it for drink of water, the brains would be blown out if it didn’t also have a sponge under the brain cavity,
And the bombardier beetle with two compartments in its tiny abdomen where chemicals mix and form a liquid that boils to 212 degrees, a weapon that is fired from rear twin turrets at predators.
“Kids want to know stuff like that, and it’s so much fun to talk about,” LeVake said, adding that topics like gravity and magnetism taught in physical science are interesting, too, but don’t have nearly as much pizazz.
He didn’t question the evolutionary theory in college because he had other things on his mind, like graduating. During 13 years teaching general science, though, he grew increasingly dubious. Always included to “believe everything the Bible says,” his doubts about Darwin were reinforced by books and magazine articles that took issue with the 19th-century sage.
“There are so any reasons why,” LeVake declares.
He starts with the peppered moth theory, which was the only element of evolutionary study he actually taught during his one-year stint in biology. That was a shortened school year due to construction, and, with so much to cover, he spent just one day on the subject, and taught it straight. But he subsequently read critiques of the peppered moths theory that tipped him toward forcing the issue.
“Peppered moths is a keystone to the theory of evolution,” LeVake said. “Some scientists think it proves evolution. There were two varieties of peppered moths, one white and one black. During the Industrial Revolution in England, tree trunks were darkened, and the theory goes that the darkened tree trunks enabled the black moths to blend in and not be easy prey for birds like the white ones. So the population if peppered moths became mostly the black ones.”
However, he said he found out later in magazine articles debunking the theory that peppered moths didn’t live on the trunks at all, but rather hid in the leaves, where birds can’t prey on them.
“But it’s still in the textbooks. In fact, the pictures in textbooks were actually death moths glued to tree trunks. So I thought that if I was going to teach it again, I would think you would want to say something to students about that.”
He cited a controversy over Haeckels’ embryos. A Darwin disciple, Ermst Haeckel, published drawings he made of embryos of such diverse creatures as chickens, fish, salamanders and humans and noted how strikingly similar they looked, citing them as proof we all came from the same evolutionary line. However, LeVake said, subsequent research, and photos of embryos, discredited Haeckel.
“They’ve known this for decades but Haeckel’s embryos are still in the textbooks as facts.”
Also troubling him are theories concerning seagoing animals described in evolutionary textbooks. The theory holds that first there was a single cell, then many sells, then amphibious creatures, then reptiles,then birds and mammals.
“So, where did the whale come from?” he asks. “They say some mammal went into the water, at first they said cow-shaped, and now they say dog-shaped. But a dog breathes here (in front of his face) and a whale breathes here (top of his head). It would have somehow had to mutate so they can breathe here. I just think it’s crazy to believe that. And all these mutations would have to occur at the same time for the creature to survive.”
The reptile-to-mammal stage also vexes him. The reptile has six bones on each side of the jaw and one ear bone he notes, while “we have three ear bones and one jaw bone in each side.” The theory holds that some jawbones mutated and migrated up to become three inner-ear bones on each said, which would leave one jawbone, but “that doesn’t make sense.”
For these and other reasons, LeVake is not just dubious about evolution, he believes there is “no chance” that molecules evolved into man.
“I don’t even think different kinds of animals are connected with one another,” he states. “The fossil record doesn’t support it.”
The Christian teacher is more receptive to the “intelligent design” theory which he says is gaining currency with some scientific minds. He has attended conferences in Kansas City where, he said, a number of PhD’s, not necessarily religious people, discussed the notion that nature’s marvelously perfect systems were simply designed as we see them.
We asked LeVake about people’s reactions to the stand he took.
He said teaching colleagues have remained friendly and have not raised the subject with him. There was one contentious meeting on the science department when the issue arose in 1988. “They went around the room firing questions at me. One told me, ‘What you believe is just like believing the earth is flat.’ ” Otherwise, everything has been civil, which he attributes “to Minnesota Nice.”
Among fellow science teachers, he has not sought out opinions, while acknowledging that none of his FHS colleagues has indicated they agree with him.
Mail has poured in. His son put up a map with a pin showing every place they’ve come from and there’s between 250 and 300 from the U.S. and Canada. Almost all have been supportive with just one “kook” letter asking if he considered suicide.
Leave is convinced him that he has struck a nerve, noting that legislatures and school boards in several states “have had second thoughts about being 100 percent supportive of evolution.” Congress passed an amendment sponsored by Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) recommending that different points of view on evolution be allowed. It passed 91-8 with liberals like Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd rising in support.
The courts, he said, gave him “a bum rap,” but he has accepted the verdict. Still, he doesn’t think the story is over.
“I’m not a legal scholar, but maybe this is a change that has to come from the grass roots,” LeVake concluded. “Maybe that’s why the Supreme Court said they don’t want to hear it. Maybe it’s got to come from the people, of Faribault, of Minnesota and of the nation.”