Creationists' aim: a high court test

The legal battle to force the teaching of "creation science" -- a Bible-derived account of the origin of humanity and the cosmos -- in US public schools now is fully under way.

Gov. David C. Treen of Louisiana signed a creationism bill into law July 21 making his state the second after Arkansas to put such legislation on its books. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which already is suing Arkansas in federal court for violating the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, says it will contest the Louisiana statute also.

Thus the march toward the US Supreme Court, where at least some creationist say they want to put the concept of evolution itself on trial, has begun.

This confrontation between natural science and a fundamentalist interpretation of Biblical accounts has been developing for over a decade. Working through local or regional school boards and state legislatures, creationists have sought "equal time" or "balanced treatment" for their views whenever the concept of evolution and its related theories are taught in public schools.

These efforts have met with mixed success. Laws akin to, if not strictly identical to, those of Arkansas and Louisiana have failed passage in some states or been struck down as unconstitutional by the courts. This has led creationists to develop new tactics in an effort to turn the US Constitution's clause forbidding an establishment of religion to their advantage.

Creationist contend that teaching "godless" evolution in public schools amounts to state sponsorship of a religion which they sometimes call "secular humanism." They maintain that the scientific evidence supporting the theory of evolution is so vague, and its interpretation among biological scientists so controversial, that belief in evolution amounts to a religious conviction rather than an objective scientifically derived conclusion.

They further maintain the geological, biological, and other evidence on which theories of evolution are based can be better interpreted as evidence of a supernatural creator, of a universal (Noah's) flood, and of a recent creation of life and the universe within something like the past 10,000 years. This called "creation science."

Thus, in urging equal time for their view, creationists now say they do not want religion or the Bible taught us such in natural science classes. They do want their view taught as a valid scientific interpretation of the evidence on an intellectual par with evolution. Moreover, they say, failing to do so amounts to state sponsorship of "religious" belief in evolution.

This is embodied explicitly in the Arkansas law and somewhat less specifically in the Louisiana law, both of which are based on model laws drafted by creationist organizations. The Arkansas statute, for example, says that teaching only evolution gives "preference to theological liberalism, humanism, nontheistic religions, and atheism, in that these religious faiths generally include a religious belief in evolution."

In contesting this law, the ACLU insists that it does not prevent religious instruction but actually mandates such instruction in the form of a thinly disguised fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. A number of religious and scientific organizations and individuals have joined ACLU as co-plaintiffs.

However, this suit and the one expected to brought against Louisiana work out , some such case may be carried to the US Supreme Court. It is here that some creationists hope to win a decisive victory over evolutionary theory, as creationist lawyer Richard K. Turner has indicated.

Last winter, Mr. Turner brought the suit of Kelley Seagraves, director of the Creation-Science Research Center, against the California Department of Education and Board of Education to protect children who were allegedly having their religious beliefs undermined in the schools. The trial ended undramatically when the plaintiffs suddenly narrowed their demands to a request for a slight change in educational guidelines to make reference to evolution seem less dogmatic. The whole event was widely viewed as a publicity effort to raise support and money for the creationist cause.

Commenting on this at the time, Turner explained it would take money to fight "the big constitutional case" in which he hopes to prove the theory of evolution is just another religious faith. "If you can prove the theory is simply a poor theory, and that scientists still believe in it and fight over it, then you've started to prove that it 's akin to believing that there's a God," he said.

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