The Discovery Institute and Texans for Better Science Education
Attempt to Swiftboat Christine Castillo Comer
An Investigative Report
by Steven Schafersman, Ph.D.
Texas Citizens for Science
2008 October 27
John West, Associate Director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science & Culture--its Intelligent Design Creationism promoting branch--and Vice President for Public Policy and Legal Affairs for the Discovery Institute, has written a news column about Chris Comer. It seems that a Houston-area Creationist organization--Texans for Better Science Education (TBSE)--is so obsessed with Chris that its leader, Mark Ramsey, made the effort to obtain all the official letters and memos from her Texas Education Agency (TEA) personnel file under the Texas Public Information Act (PIA). In an act of unparalleled malice, TBSE has published these formerly private documents and written a press release that claims that Comer was not really a martyr of science after all, but had a "long history of disciplinary problems" at the TEA that justify her employment termination. But this is completely untrue.
West repeats everything in TBSE's press release as if it were all true. A few items are facially true, such as the fact that Chris received three separate disciplinary letters spanning eight separate incidents, and that the letters contained multiple findings of "insubordination" and "misconduct." But what West and TBSE don't tell you is that Chris was not guilty of most of the items mentioned and that the ones she was guilty of were set up to trap her and force her out of the agency. In fact, Chris Comer performed her job as TEA Director of Science with professionalism, competence, complete honesty, and--as Chris states in her forced resignation memo--with "honor and dignity," for ten years. In fact, the new radical right zealots at TEA--brought in by Commissioner of Education Robert Scott and SBOE Chair Don McLeroy, under the direction of Governor Rick Perry--worked from the beginning to get rid of Chris and many others in the curriculum and assessment divisions of the TEA who were going to stand in their way to make TEA a "captured agency" and promote a radical religious right agenda on a variety of topics, including evolution. And by the way, so far they have succeeded.
There are several untruths in the TBSE documents. The TBSE press release claims that "it appears that Ms. Comer was not fired, but resigned after a history of disciplinary issues" and the TBSE timeline inexplicably states that
News reports of Comer's departure have parroted the claim that Comer was "fired" because she opposed teaching "creationism" and "intelligent design" and supported evolution.
Indeed, Chris was not fired, but forced to resign under the threat of being fired. The TEA letter of November 5, 2007, from Monica Martinez, states clearly that "I propose to terminate the employment of Chris Castillo-Comer due to misconduct and insubordination." Chris was offered the opportunity to resign to keep her pension, and she accepted. To my knowledge, no news report has ever stated that Chris Comer was fired. The TBSE timeline provides a Web citation for this, but the word "fired," which the timeline has in quotes, is not found on the page cited. Furthermore, the document cited is not even a news report but a very short blog column with some comments. Another citation is a news report, and it mentions the "dismissal letter" and quotes Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the state’s education agency in Austin, who said Ms. Comer "resigned. She wasn’t fired." It does not state in any form that Chris was fired, so I can't understand why TBSE thinks the idea that Chris was "fired" is an issue. In fact, I have been informed that being forced to resign is legally the same thing as being fired and is a legitimate justification for litigation if appropriate.
Many news reports, such as the New York Times article and my own report on the Texas Citizens for Science (TCS) website, mention that Chris was forced to resign because she was opposed to "creationism" and "intelligent design" and supported "evolution." We said that because it was true. The TBSE documents and the DI's West try to make the same claim that the TEA has tried to make, that Chris was forced to resign for "insubordination" and "misconduct," but these charges were fronted to hide the true reasons for her dismissal. The evidence for this is substantial and will no doubt be brought out in her court case against the TEA, but I will provide a summary here. The bottom line is that, contrary to West and TBSE, Chris Comer was a "victim of anti-evolution intolerance" (as DI's John West discounted) and a "martyr" for science (which TBSE's Mark Ramsey claimed was an "invent[ion]").
We will examine the details in a moment, but first let me say something about TBSE. I am sure that the TBSE members are tingly with excitement for the recognition given to them by the DI's John West, since TBSE is a stealth organization that purports to want the alleged "weaknesses" of evolution included in science standards, just as does the DI, but in reality is a front of the Greater Houston Creation Association, a Young Earth Creationist (YEC) organization. Both groups have the same members and are essentially run by the same person: an engineer named Mark Ramsey, who believes he knows more about evolutionary biology than real scientists and has devoted his life to refuting evolution. There are, in fact, several engineers in the greater Houston area who are trying to do this (with the limited knowledge at their disposal). In 2003 I wrote a long investigative report about TBSE and GHCA, and exposed their relationship. The GHCA is described as follows on the website of Creationism.org:
Houston's creation organization - active in coordinating speakers and seminars. GHCA takes Genesis, and the rest of the Bible, literally. So that there is no ambiguity, this means that our Savior and Creator was responsible for creating our world in six 'literal' days, around 6000-10000 years ago. Approximately 2000 years after Creation, the cataclysmic Flood of Noah occurred. It was world-wide in extent and lasted about one year from start to finish. Most sedimentary rocks of the so-called "geologic column" we see today are mainly a testimonial to and evidence of the cataclysm.
TBSE is supposed to only want both "strengths and weaknesses" of biology theories and hypotheses to be taught, but it is obvious that this "benign" goal is not the true, ultimate goal: Ramsey and his friends want to injure science education in Texas biology classrooms by corrupting evolution instruction and deceiving students to make them question accurate and reliable scientific knowledge, thus making them more easily susceptible to supernaturalistic explanations, such as the YEC beliefs that they share.
Mark Ramsey was responsible for making the PIA request, writing the press release and timeline, and publishing these two documents plus the compilation of Chris Comer's personnel file materials on the TBSE website. Ramsey has exhibited considerable rudeness and malice to do this, because one's personnel file shouldn't be given public exposure. In fact, Ramsey recently attempted to get materials using the PIA from my own personnel file from my last Texas public university, but was unable to get anything important because of the university's document retention policy (documents older than five years are destroyed). Also, I believe that Ramsey was put up to do his document request and publicizing by some SBOE members, possibly by his YEC colleague Terri Leo of Spring and Montgomery County, to aid the upcoming court case that TEA faces against Comer's litigation. This may be an attempt to poison the well, but it has no chance of working.
Now, let's examine the incidents of "insubordination" and "misconduct" that TBSE's Mark Ramsey and DI's John West claim disqualifies Chris Comer's claim that her employment was terminated illegally. In the TBSE timeline, Ramsey emphatically makes the accusation that, "During her employment at the TEA, Comer received...three disciplinary letters spanning at least eight separate incidents, and seven of these eight incidents had nothing to do with evolution." But there's more to this charge than meets the eye. Chris began work at TEA in 1997, and until 2007 there is only one serious charge in all the documents against Chris. This is the June 12, 2003, Letter of Reprimand and Notice of Disciplinary Probation from Ann Smisko, Associate Commissioner. Chris was accused of getting a small amount of money from a TEA Comprehensive Assessment Training in Science (CATS) grant to Alamo Community College District (ACCD) for travel expenses. Chris was told the money was from the San Antonio Education Foundation, not from the ACCD. Also, she could not provide receipts for the reimbursed travel expenses. In fact, she received no funds from either the CATS grant or ACCD as the continued investigation showed.
A second charge was that she took money as a consultant for work on the Texas Atlas Project, another CATS project, which was conducted on her own time. Employees are forbidden to take any money for consulting without submitting a Disclosure Reporting Form, and Chris failed to do this. This is a very minor infraction. For these two charges, the letter was the only disciplinary action Chris received, because, in fact, the charges were so minor. The letter states that "the disciplinary action is based on information available at this time and the preliminary findings of the Internal Auditor." There were no further findings or charges. She was told later that she was completely cleared of suspicion, but Ramsey and West don't want to inform you of that. The mistaken Letter of Reprimand and Notice of Disciplinary Probation should have been removed from Chris's file, and Ramsey and West should apologize to her now.
Now this is important: the charges in this letter were the only misconduct charges Chris received during the first nine years of her employment at TEA. The remaining seven incidents all came during one year after the Perry-McLeroy-Scott-Reynolds anti-science cabal started to take over the TEA. Thus, contrary to several statements by Comer antagonists, Chris did not have (1) "a history of disciplinary issues" as Ramsey wrote, (2) "a long history of disciplinary problems" as West wrote, and was not (3) "an employee who has no legal case against the agency because she abused her position for years" as Lizzette Reynolds wrote (p. 16 of pdf file). Each of these claims increases in malice and untruthfulness. What is their motivation to direct so much animosity at Chris Comer?
After the Scott-McLeroy-Reynolds anti-science cabal took over the TEA, Curriculum Director (currently Policy Director) Monica Martinez was apparently asked to rein-in Comer and other members of the Curriculum Division. The TEA administration didn't want Comer or others to discuss policy issues with individuals outside the TEA, a common practice since I began my advocacy efforts in 1980. In addition, I believe, the TEA administration wanted to make it difficult for Chris to do her work and perhaps to catch her in infractions of the new policies so that she could be disciplined and ultimately fired, so she was now required to seek and obtain prior approval for every trip, meeting, presentation, and communication with individuals outside the agency. As a middle-level TEA manager, Chris had always been responsible for her own time and schedule, which was quite busy and complex, with much travel and many meetings and presentations to science teachers, frequently outside the TEA building. She controlled her personal travel and presentation schedule for nine years.
The new rules were onerous and disruptive, and Chris apparently failed to always get permission for every trip and outside presentation before the fact. The point here is that these infractions, for which Chris received letters from Martinez that accused her "misconduct" and "insubordination," were for very minor infractions that would never merit these severe terms or employment termination under a rational bureaucracy. In fact, other TEA staff members have violated these new rules without being terminated. Once again, there's more here than meets the eye.
Three of Chris's supposed "infractions" were not infractions of the rules at all. The first is the February 2007 Letter of Counseling that Chris received from Monica Martinez. Chris had attended a Saturday conference on her own time and with her own money. The undeserved "Letter of Counseling" was one of several that Martinez gave to other Curriculum Division employees to get them to stop meeting outside the agency and was a clear abuse of power, since TEA employees have every right to go to meetings on their own time and money. I suspect Monica Martinez was instructed to bear down on the TEA curriculum staff but was not subtle enough in her efforts, so she created too much negative publicity for the agency. But while she was the proximate cause, the bad publicity and illegal forced resignation were not her fault, since her superiors ordered her to do what she did.
The second supposed infraction is Chris's alleged statement on October 9, 2007, to the "Texas Regional Collaborative Science Directors" that "Robert Scott was only Acting Commissioner and that there was no real leadership at the agency." This was described by Martinez as "misconduct...conduct that negatively impacts TEA." In fact, Chris only spoke to two or three individuals in private; she did not address a large meeting of education officials. Also, at the time, Robert Scott's appointment as Commissioner of Education was in doubt due to a charge against him and ultimate TEA leadership was indeed in flux, so the statement was actually true. As it turned out, Scott was appointed Commissioner and was later cleared of the false charge with no problem.
The third example is even more important. Chris was told in writing in the February 2007 "Letter of Counseling": "You are not to communicate in writing or otherwise with anyone outside the agency in any way that that might compromise the transparency and/or integrity of the upcoming TEKS development and revision process." This is the specific directive Chris was accused of violating in the November 2007 Letter of Proposed Disciplinary Action ("terminate the employment") when she forwarded the email message announcing the Barbara Forrest presentation about the Dover trial and Intelligent Design Creationism. She had forwarded such announcements hundreds of times; it was her job. She just wrote "FYI" on the message. In the employment termination letter (p. 12 of pdf file), Martinez claimed sending this email message "violates the directive Ms. Comer was given not to communicate in writing or otherwise with anyone outside the agency in any way that might compromise the integrity of the TEKS development and revision process." It is obvious to anyone who understands the issues that forwarding an announcement about a pro-science presentation did not "compromise the integrity" of either the TEA or the TEKS process, but in fact supported the integrity of those things. So the alleged violation was false to begin with.
Chris said this was only forwarding "information," not failing to follow a supervisor's directive which would indeed constitute insubordination. Not so, says the Martinez memo. The "forwarding of this event announcement by Ms. Comer, as the Director of Science, from her TEA email account constitutes much more than just sharing information. Ms. Comer's email implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral. Thus, sending this email compromises the agency's role in the TEKS revision process by creating the perception that TEA has a biased position in a subject directly related to the science education TEKS."
As everyone knows, the "subject on which the agency must remain neutral" to which the Martinez memo refers is evolution vs. Creationism. Barbara Forrest is a noted anti-Creationist who testified against Intelligent Design Creationism in the Dover trial. Monica Martinez is saying that the TEA must "remain neutral" and not assume a "biased position" about this subject, when in fact the TEA must--by both Federal law and Texas law and regulations--support the scientific side of the controversy. Chris was cautioned to not communicate with the outside in any way that might compromise the "transparency and integrity" of the upcoming science standards process. Forwarding the memo did not do this; in fact, it did the opposite: the Forrest talk supported good science, so information about it would have increased the integrity of the science standards process. So the Martinez memo and the employment termination of Chris Comer is based on extremely faulty and misleading reasoning.
The memo goes on to claim that "Ms. Comer's forwarding of this email not only violates an established directive," (which, as discussed above, is a false claim), but goes on to make several other false statements. It says that Chris Comer's action "directly conflicts with her responsibilities as the Director of Science," and that the "assertion that she sent the email innocently is itself unacceptable, as it indicates that she lacks an adequate understanding of TEA's role in the TEKS process and her appropriate role as the Director of Science." These claims are false because forwarding information about an upcoming science talk is one of the longstanding responsibilities of the TEA Director of Science, and the TEA's role in the upcoming TEKS process should be to support good science instruction, as Chris has always done, not damage it.
One final, important item: Nowhere in the documents obtained and published by TBSE is there an explicit mention of the official TEA policy of neutrality between Creationism and evolution. I know this policy existed, because many TEA staff members, including Chris Comer, had this policy explicitly explained to them by Susan Barnes (who of course was told the policy by her superior, which one I do not know for certain, but it was probably Lizzette Reynolds). This policy is at the heart of Chris Comer's employment termination, since this is the ultimate reason she was forced out, and the policy--which is still in force, by the way--is illegal. The TEA is a public government institution and thus must be, by Constitutional law, a secular institution. All of its policies and practices must be secular. Promoting and teaching science--including evolution--are secular policies and practices. Promoting Creationism or bogus, pseudoscientific "weaknesses" of evolution is a sectarian religious policy and practice that is forbidden by law. Thus, a policy of "neutrality" between evolution and Creationism is illegal (specifically, it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution). Since this is the case, there is no legally justifiable way a public agency staff member could have his or her employment terminated for disobeying an illegal policy.
I truly hope the Comer v. TEA case is not settled before it goes to deposition, because there is still so much to learn about who specifically mandated the official TEA policy of neutrality between evolution and Creationism, i.e. between science and pseudoscience. We will also find out if there was a conspiracy to force Chris Comer and many others out of the TEA by new rule infractions and who was responsible for it for this policy. We will also find out about the new policy to write end-of-course biology exams to include "weaknesses" of evolution. The attorneys will also be able to obtain much other important information from the TEA administrators and SBOE members about how they formulated their disgusting anti-science policies and conspiracy. Because this information will be so damaging, I think the TEA will try very hard to settle before the litigation reaches deposition, much less a trial. Once Chris's attorneys get McLeroy, Scott, Reynolds, and Martinez under oath in deposition, their duplicitous anti-science conspiracy will be exposed to the public.
Texas Citizens for Science Last updated: 2008 October 28