The eyes of US book publishers are once again riveted on Texas - the largest single purchaser of school texts in the nation. Last year, textbook sales in the Lone Star State topped $64 million. And as far as publishers are concerned, such a bounty hurdles corral fences and even state boundaries. What flies in Texas flies across the land.
What has flown in Texas for the past decade is what was known as an anti-evolution rule. Prodded by the pens and philosophy of creationists, this two-forked edict mandated that school texts dealing with the theory of evolution ''shall identify it (evolution) as only one of several explanations of the origins of humankind and avoid limiting young people in their search for meanings of their human existence.'' This rule further required evolution to be treated ''as theory rather than fact'' and ''in a manner which is not detrimental to other theories of origin.''
Fair is fair, said the creationists, backed by an impressive representation of fundamentalist Christians. Equal time, equal presentation: creationism and evolution.
In this case, fair is foul, insisted the scholarly community orchestrated by civil libertarians, holding tight to classroom separation of church and state.
What ''balanced treatment'' means in Texas and elsewhere where schoolbooks carry the Lone Star brand, decried science teachers, is the subjugation of Darwinian teachings in the classroom and the spotlighting or presentation of biblically inspired creation. Their proof lay in the galleys. Many publishers simply dropped evolution from their texts rather than get embroiled in political squabbles. Others drastically scaled down their Darwin coverage. Gerald Skoog, a Texas Tech education professor who surveyed biology texts across the United States from 1973 to 1983, found that the treatment of evolution had definitely declined - in some cases by as much as 79 percent.
However, this past March, Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox flatly stated that the 1974 rule was unconstitutional. ''The inference is inescapable,'' he concluded, ''from the narrowness of the requirement that a concern for religious sensibilities, rather than a dedication to scientific truth'' was the real motivation for the rules. The State School Board, under threat of a lawsuit by People for the American Way (PAW), a nationwide anticensorship lobby, capitulated to the Mattox opinion and junked the decade-old evolution disclaimers.
Is the battle over? Not by a long shot. Fundamentalist groups, in Texas as well as in a score of other places including Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Tennessee, and West Virginia, continue to push for equal treatment of creationism in school science curricula.
However, the effect of the recent Texas decision now should ''free up'' publishers to include more evolutionary theory in their new texts, says PAW's Tod Mesirow. Mr. Mesirow adds that it is clear that most people ''don't want to pass off religion as science or pass off science as religion.''
But others are cautious. ''The (textbook) adoption process in Texas is critical this year,'' insists Wayne A. Moyer, former executive director of the National Association of Biology Teachers and consultant to PAW's Freedom to Learn project. Mr. Moyer says the public must exert pressure to get publishers to publish, and schools to approve, quality science textbooks, unemcumbered by the creationist-evolutionist controversy.
The bottom line has to be first-rate education for our young people. This is particularly vital in the sciences, where most studies have shown a nationwide lag.
Biblical instruction is primarily a matter for the home and the church. But the teaching of evolutionary theory in the schools is a proper academic pursuit and must undergo the rigors of scholarly investigation. It's irrelevant, and even degrading, to debate spiritual creation in this type of forum.
Lastly, whenever religious issues are introduced into the public secular arena, individual rights are likely to be compromised. It might be well to keep in mind the words of federal Judge William Overton from a 1982 landmark ruling in which he enjoined the State of Arkansas from implementing ''balanced treatment'' of evolution and creationism in its public schools:
''No group, no matter how large or small, may use the organs of government, of which the public schools are the most conspicuous and influential, to foist its religious beliefs on others."