Washington — Scientists and science teachers attending a major conference here are delighted that federal court Judge William Overton has struck down Arkansas' ''creation science'' law. But they have no illusions that what they see as a battle to protect the integrity of science teaching in the public schools is over.
The Arkansas law mandated ''equal treatment'' for what some Christian fundamentalists call ''creation science'' whenever evolution is taught in the state's public schools. Judge Overton has declared this law an unconstitutional breach of the separation of church and state. In his opinion, handed down Jan. 5 , he held that what is called ''creation science'' is a thinly disguised version of a literal interpretation of the Biblical account of creation in Genesis. The AAAS feels this 'scientific' interpretation of Genesis makes a shambles of modern scientific knowledge. A similar law in Louisiana is about to face a legal challenge also.
Meanwhile, bills to establish comparable laws are pending in some 20 other state legislatures. There also is a bill in Congress to require equal federal funding for research involving ''creation science'' as well as evolution science.
It is too soon to know what impact Judge Overton's ruling will have on such legislation. Prior to the decision, Arkansas Attorney General Steven Clark said he would appeal if the state lost its case. But at this writing, it was not known here what action he would actually take.
At the grass-roots level of local school boards and textbook publishers, the drive to promote ''creation science'' and tone down, if not suppress, the theory of evolution is making significant inroads. Thus, scientists and science teachers here say they are awakening belatedly to realize they have a major nationwide battle on their hands.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), now holding its annual meeting here, issued a statement welcoming Overton's ruling, saying: ''We cannot relax because of a defeat of creationists in one courtroom, nor do we expect the creationists to give up.''
At a special symposium on creationism and in private conversations, individual scientists and science teachers tell of creationist inroads at the local level that sometimes extend to intimidation of individual teachers.
Stanley L. Weinburg of the Iowa Academy of Sciences reported that in his state, such local pressure is widespread. He said, ''In one Iowa school district , the president of the school board calls in each new biology teacher and says something to this effect: 'You have every right to teach evolution if you wish - but not in this district if you want to keep your job.' ''
Noting that ''the creation-evolution controversy is not a scientific dispute, it is a political conflict,'' Dr. Weinburg urged scientists and science teachers to get involved in this conflict.
Kenneth S. Saladin of Georgia College, Milledgeville, Ga., a state with two creationist bills pending, repeated that challenge. ''Teaching biology without evolution strikes me a little like teaching chemistry without the periodic table ,'' he observed. He told his collegues to ''quit being afraid for your jobs. Take a stand on principles you know are unassailable. Get involved in a war you are now losing.''
Indeed, there is growing awareness in the US scientific community that scientists and science teachers have neglected both their professional and civic duty in not standing up to creationist pressures. Both the National Academy of Sciences and the AAAS now are openly expressing concern.
Across the country, scientists and science teachers are beginning to respond. Among other actions they are forming what they call ''committees of correspondence'' in 39 states to resist creationist pressures at the local level. These groups take their name from the Committees of Correspondence formed by American patriots during the Revolution.
As a broadly based organization with 136,000 members, less than half of whom are professional scientists, and with 245 affiliated societies that collectively have millions of members, AAAS feels a special responsibility ''to preserve the integrity of science.'' Thus it has passed a strongly worded resolution. This recognizes ''the right of people to hold diverse beliefs about creation. . . .'' But it notes that ''creationist groups are imposing beliefs disguised as science upon teachers and students. . . .'' Therefore, it says ''. . . because 'creationist science' has no scientific validity it should not be taught as science. . . . AAAS views legislation requiring 'creationist science' to be taught in public schools as a real and present threat to the integrity of education and the teaching of science. . . .''
AAAS officials are particularly delighted that Judge Overton made exactly this point in his ruling.