The Supreme Court ruled Friday that states may not require public schools to teach "creation science," dealing a crushing blow to a once-growing movement in the South to put the biblical view of creation on equal standing with the theory of evolution in public education.
On a 7-2 vote, the justices said that a 1981 Louisiana law mandating creation science instruction violated the legal principle of separation of church and state.
The Louisiana law "was clearly to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created mankind," the court said. The Constitution bans laws "respecting an establishment of religion."
Louisiana is the only state with a creation science law on its books, but religious fundamentalists elsewhere in the South and Southwest have mounted strong campaigns in recent years to get the biblical view of creation taught in public classrooms.
Similar Arkansas Law
A similar law was enacted in Arkansas but was struck down after a highly publicized trial in 1982, and state officials chose not to appeal the ruling.
Legal observers said that, in addition to blocking the teaching of creationism in public schools, the ruling may also cast legal doubt on other efforts by fundamentalists to change public school curriculum and textbooks.
"This decision tells lower courts and responsible state legislatures that simply relabeling religious dogma as pseudoscience won't do," said attorney Walter Slocombe, who filed a brief opposing the Louisiana law on behalf of 72 Nobel Prize-winning scientists and 17 state academies of science. "Creationism is a religious theory, not a scientific theory," he added.
Fundamentalist organizations and the two justices who dissented from the ruling, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia, argued that the ruling will unduly restrict the ideas to which children will be exposed.
"Now these children will not be exposed to the academic freedom of being taught a variety of scientific theories on the origin of the Earth, but will have their learning experiences limited to the teaching of just one idea," said Beverly LaHaye, president of Concerned Women of America, a fundamentalist lobbying group in Washington.
The creationist view suggests that animals and humans came into being suddenly several thousand years ago and the purpose of each was "fixed by God." An early version of the Louisiana statute contained this phrase, but all references to God and the Bible were removed in the final bill in an attempt to skirt legal problems.
The theory of evolution, first put forth by Charles Darwin, says that life forms, including humans, evolved over millions of years, a notion accepted by most scientists.
The Louisiana law required that any public school teaching evolution must also teach creation science.
A federal District Court, acting on appeals by parents and teachers, struck down the law as unconstitutional, and an appeals court agreed in 1985. Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, insisting that the law reflected "balanced" teaching and was a scientific measure, not a religious one, appealed the case to the Supreme Court. Friday, the high court threw out the case after deciding that it did not warrant a trial on its merits.
The latest ruling is in line with previous decisions on religion-related issues and shows that a solid court majority adheres to the view that religion must be kept separate from public life.
Twenty-five years ago this week, the high court banned the reading of prayers in public schools. Since then, it has repeatedly invalidated state laws calling for Bible readings, the posting of the Ten Commandments or "voluntary prayer" in classrooms.
In his dissenting opinion Friday, Scalia contended that the court majority had adopted a "repressive" policy toward Christian fundamentalism. He blamed this on the "legend of Scopes," the famous 1925 "monkey" trial in which Tennessee prosecuted teacher John T. Scopes for teaching evolution. Scopes was convicted but the decision was later overturned.
'Scopes in Reverse'
Today, Scalia said in a 31-page dissent, the court is insisting on "Scopes in reverse" by keeping out creationist theories.
"The people of Louisiana, including those who are Christian fundamentalists, are quite entitled, as a secular matter, to have whatever scientific evidence there may be against evolution presented in their schools, just as Mr. Scopes was entitled to present whatever scientific evidence there was for it," Scalia wrote.
Rehnquist has pointed out in dissents in earlier cases that the Constitution does not include the phrase "separation of church and state." Rather, this phrase appears in a widely quoted letter written by Thomas Jefferson. Although conservatives have argued that the First Amendment bars only laws that create an official religion, the court has broadly interpreted the legal prohibition on religious influences.
Justice William J. Brennan Jr., writing for the court in the case (Edwards vs. Aguillard, 85-1513), said that the Louisiana law "advances a religious doctrine by requiring either the banishment of the theory of evolution from public school classrooms or the presentation of a religious viewpoint that rejects evolution in its entirety."
State Stance Called 'Sham'
He dismissed as a "sham" the statements of Louisiana officials that the law was intended for educational and scientific purposes, not religious ones.
Legal observers said that the ruling may affect the outcome of an appeal of a highly publicized court decision in Alabama in March in which a judge ruled that textbooks in use there promoted the "religion" of "secular humanism"--the teaching of worldly, rather than Christian, values. That case is pending before a federal appeals court.
"This decision should help us because it says the schools should be focused on secular purpose, not religious ones," said Timothy Dyk, a lawyer for the liberal group People for the American Way, which has been active in fighting fundamentalists' efforts to change school curriculums.
Not a Total Defeat
Louisiana Atty. Gen. William J. Guste Jr., who appealed the case to the high court, said that the ruling striking down the law was not a total loss.
"The one good thing that's come out of this," he said, "is that the court said schoolteachers already have the flexibility to teach all the scientific evidence about the origins of life." He said he believes teachers could still present a diversity of scientific evidence on life, even if some of it might support a creationist view.
But Guste added that he does not favor state officials' promotion of the teaching of creationism. "We've fought this battle. The highest court has spoken, and we're through with it," he said.