WHEN the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in the Louisiana ``balanced treatment'' case last December, the question was raised whether ``creation science'' can be taught without a discussion about God or religion. The court's newest member, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, addressed the lawyer representing those who challenged a state law requiring that creation science be taught wherever evolutionary theories are offered:
``What about Aristotle's view of a first cause, an unmoved mover? Would that be a creationist view?'' Justice Scalia asked.
Framers of the 1981 Louisiana statute - the Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act - probably didn't have Aristotle in mind when they were lobbying for inclusion of creationism in the curriculum.
But they - and their supporters - have tried to persuade the court that this statute is intellectually and academically sound; that it is not religiously oriented; and hence that it is not unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Sometime this spring - perhaps even this week - the justices will make a determination in the Louisiana case. The jurists' options are many. But the ruling, whatever it is, is likely to have broad effect on what has become a heated nationwide debate over the role of religion in the schools.
Related cases in Alabama and Tennessee dealing with textbook subject matter - on appeal in the federal courts - could also be affected by this decision.
Parental, educational, and church groups have argued in the Louisiana case that efforts to give instruction about creation science equal status with the teaching of evolution are primarily motivated by religious fundamentalists - those who have in the past been unsuccessful in their efforts to get Darwinian theories replaced in the classroom by Biblical teachings.
The controversy dates back over a century and a quarter - to 1859 when Charles Darwin published the revolutionary ``Origin of Species.''
In the 1920s, four states - Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee - passed laws banning the teaching of evolution. Similar statutes were introduced, but not enacted, in 16 others.
The 1927 Scopes trial in Tennessee attracted national, and now historic attention, with the famous lawyer, Clarence Darrow, defending the teaching of evolution, and his equally illustrious opponent, William Jennings Bryan, attacking it. Bryan won. But the ruling was later reversed on a technicality.
Four decades later, the debate wound its way to the US Supreme Court. And in 1968, in Epperson v. Arkansas, the justices struck down an Arkansas anti-evolution statute which they said violated the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution because its purpose was religious. It tried ``to suppress the teaching of a theory which, it was thought, `denied' the divine creation of man.''
Since then, creationists have changed tactics and, instead of trying to get evolution purged from classrooms, have focused on ``balanced treatment'' legislation, which requires that evolution and creation science be presented side by side.
Louisiana's legislature passed such a law. A federal district court, however, struck it down without even ordering a trial. And a three-judge appeals court further ruled, in July 1985, that the Balanced Treatment Act's ``intended effect is to discredit evolution by counterbalancing its teaching at every turn with the teaching of creationism, a religious belief.''
Later, a full panel of the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals refused a rehearing - but on a narrow 8 to 7 vote. And the seven dissenters cited affidavits by ``highly qualified scientists'' affirming that there is ``scientific evidence for the creationist view.''
Now, according to constitutional experts, the US Supreme Court has several alternatives. Among them: (1) It could remand the case back to Louisiana for a full hearing, ruling that the district court erred in deciding the matter without a trial; (2) it could apply a three-pronged test, which it has used in many church and state matters in recent years, to determine whether the Louisiana law, in effect, establishes a religious belief, promotes one religious view over another, or unnecessarily entangles the secular and the nonsecular; (3) or it could try to define whether creation science is a true science or whether it is religion masquerading in scientific clothing.
Curtis J. Sitomer, the Monitor's ``Justice'' columnist, writes regularly on legal affairs.