A CONTROVERSIAL new push is under way to teach creationism in the nation's schools.
Experts say it highlights the increasing influence conservative Christians are exerting on school boards and state legislatures across the country.
The push - most visible in the South - renews a debate about the origins of organic life that has been the subject of contention and lawsuits since Charles Darwin launched his theory of evolution 140 years ago.
For the most part, evolution has won the battle in the science classroom, and creationist views have been largely confined to the home or church. Now a growing number of school districts and states are trying to tip curricula away from evolution-based teaching. For instance:
*In Tennessee, the state where biology teacher John Scopes was convicted and fined $100 for teaching evolution 71 years ago, lawmakers are considering legislation to allow school boards to fire teachers who present evolution as fact.
*In Georgia, a bill that would allow instructors to teach alternatives to evolution has passed the House of Representatives and awaits a Senate vote.
*Last December, Alabama school officials voted to require an insert in science textbooks, saying that evolution is a theory, not a scientific fact.
"These statewide initiatives are shifts from what we've seen," says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Berkeley, Calif. "We don't know if this is a new national trend of reintroducing the top-down mandating of creationism or if this is a little blip on the radar screen."
Although the states currently considering the issue on the statewide level are Southern, the controversy is not regional. Local efforts to bring creation science into science courses are intensifying in small towns and big cities from California to Michigan, Dr. Scott says.
Many scientists view the actions as a thinly veiled attempt to bring religion into the classroom. "I don't think anyone is trying to blast away at fundamental Christians who take the Bible literally," says John Hamilton, a biology professor at Gainesville College in Gainesville, Ga. "It's just that there doesn't seem to be any evidence to support creation theory; it's not good science. Whereas evolution and the body of substantiating evidence ... pretty much speaks for itself."
Others frame the debate differently.
"It is curious the way the school system is just so absolutely irrationally determined to force on children a dogma that really doesn't have any scientific validity - the idea that man evolved from monkeys," counters Phyllis Schlafly, president of the conservative Eagle Forum in St. Louis. "There isn't any evidence of that and it's presented in a very antireligious way. Parents have a First Amendment right to have their children in the public schools without being taught that God did not create the world."
Ever since Darwin's introduction of the theory of natural selection in 1858, scientists have argued that humans and other species have evolved over millions of years. They say this process of evolution works through natural selection - species born with features that enable them to survive pass those characteristics to their offspring.
Creationists look to the Bible for the explanation of how organic life originated and contend the earth's fossil record was created when the floodwaters receded. They say scientific data exist to document the sudden birth of the universe and call this theory creation science.
Evolution was prevalent in textbooks until after John Scopes's 1925 trial. In the 1930s and '40s it faded away only to be revived in new textbooks during the 1960s and '70s. By the late '70s, 26 state legislatures were considering "equal time" laws, which would have allowed both evolution and creation science to be taught side by side as two theories.
OF those states, Arkansas and Louisiana passed the legislation, but both were struck down. In the case of Louisiana in 1987, the Supreme Court proclaimed creationism a religious idea.
Those equal-time laws are becoming popular again, especially in local school districts, Scott says. In Hall County, Ga., for instance, the school board recently voted unanimously to let teachers teach both as theories. The district is now looking for biology textbooks that explain creation science.
Hall County's initiative is sparking some dissent. Though many people in the conservative area northeast of Atlanta favor the teaching of creation science, others are opposed. A local lawyer is threatening a lawsuit. A few teachers have received hate mail for questioning the action, and most are unwilling to express any view. Currently, some avoid teaching evolution altogether.
Parents have also criticized Hall County's decision. "We've had a few calls from parents who think we're going to teach Bible classes," says Douglas Calvert, a school board member who introduced the measure. "Many of them after speaking with us have changed their viewpoint and realize that's not what we're doing. Creationism - the Bible story of Adam and Eve ... is not what we'll teach. We're actually going to get materials in science books produced by real geologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists who just do not believe a lot of what the evolution theory puts forth."
Counters Scott: "If they're trying to teach alternative scientific views to evolution there aren't any. Evolution is the only scientific game in town."