By striking down a never-enforced 1981 Louisiana law requiring that the theory of creationism be given equal time in public school science classes with Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, the Supreme Court Friday powerfully reinforced its earlier positions on the firm separation of church and state. The Supreme Court decision, however, does not prohibit students from learning religious ideas and history in school, legal scholars and educators say. Nor does it limit in scope critical methods of student or classroom inquiry into questions about the creation or evolution of man or the universe - questions a majority of Americans regard as religious in nature, according to recent polls.
Harvard legal scholar Laurence Tribe says: ``In this case ... the court hasn't said, `Students may not be exposed to religion.'''
The 7-2 decision rejected a Louisiana claim that equal time for creationism is a form of ``academic freedom.'' Instead, the court found that the Louisiana law was created with a ``religious purpose'' - a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which disallows state endorsement and support of religious doctrine.
Associate Justice William Brennan, writing the majority opinion, said the Lousiana law attempted to ``restructure the science curriculum to conform with a particular religious viewpoint.'' The opinion was based on a previous 1971 decision (Lemon vs. Kurtzman) which declared laws unconstitutional if their purpose is not secular or if their primary effect is to advance or inhibit religion, or if they unduly entangle government in religion.
Dissenting, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justice Antonin Scalia said the court should not interpret the issue of ``purpose.''
Creation science theory is based on a literal intepretation of the Bible - a view that people, animals, and landscapes suddenly appeared on earth about 6,000 years ago.
In this case (Edwards vs. Aguillard), state lawyers attempted to establish a scientific basis for creationism - separate from Biblical accounts - arguing that in the sweep of time, complex life forms do appear on earth abruptly, and that, contrary to evolution theory, fossil records do not show a crossover from species to species.
Most scientists say creation science is pseudoscience. ```Creation science' is an oxymoron,'' states Harvard palentologist Stephen Jay Gould.
Conservative Christians themselves are divided over different interpretations of creationism.
Experts say that if the court had upheld the Louisiana law, the door could have been opened for any number of other creation theories to also receive ``balanced treatment'' in schools. Said one scholar: ``You could legislate a Buddhist view or demand a modified evolutionary view that accounts for randomness in nature. It could go on and on.''
The issue, which goes back to the famous Scopes Trial in the 1920s, has never before reached the Supreme Court. Now, on the heels of a recent setback in an Arkansas lower court, many experts feel the effort to legally mandate creation science curriculums may have run its course.
However, the decision leaves untouched the deeper problem of what and how to teach students about the origins of life. This is a key unresolved issue of the 20th century, in which spiritual experience and religious thinking are often at odds with the empirical findings of modern physical science.
Justice Brennan's opinion denounced the enactment of laws ``to advance the viewpoint that a supernatural being created mankind.'' But Professor Tribe points out that this doesn't mean schools can't ``put a variety of different religious and secular opinions on the table.''
Recent polls show a majority of parents want alternatives to evolutionary theory taught.
Harriet Tyson, director of a textbook and curriculum development study in Washington, D.C. says: ``Schools haven't learned how to teach different approaches to truth and reality. There are a great number of ordinary, mainstream parents out there who believe in God but are confused about what their children should learn. They know there are a lot of questions modern science doesn't ask and can't answer.''
Some say the time is ripe for new curriculums. Others, including Massachusetts education official Charles Glen, point out that the homogenized atmosphere of public schools, is not the best venue for sensitive and complex issues. ``In 14 years of public schooling, my own kids rarely heard about alternatives to evolution,'' Mr. Glen says. ``When they did, it was usually treated as a joke.''
The new ruling is expected to shape legal tactics in two other major cases, brought by conservative Christians in Tennessee and Alabama. Many leading educators treat the cases separately.
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, tacitly supports the right of children in Tennessee to opt out of certain textbook readings. He deplores Judge Brevard Hand's decision in the Alabama ``secular humanism'' case, but agrees with his conclusions about the poor quality of textbooks. About the Louisiana case Shanker remarked, ``The Supreme Court just rescued the nation's public school students from narrow-minded fanatics.''