A bill to require the teaching of creation science in public schools, an issue that has stirred controversy nationwide, made its debut in Maryland politics last week with all of the fanfare that has accompanied it in other states.
Proponents and opponents of the measure jammed a hearing room Thursday where an influential committee of the Maryland House of Delegates convened to listen to their debate. Legislators arrived at their desks to find stacks of materials provided by witnesses, documents that in some instances were as weighty as college term papers, with footnotes and scientific and historical references.
Television lights glared.
But the surface attention paid here to the creation-science legislation, introduced by Del. Patrick C. Scannello (R-Anne Arundel), is hardly a measure of the legislature's sentiment on this bill or a raft of others that are supported by fringe political and religious groups.
Just two days before Scannello's bill was scheduled for a hearing, Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs wrote an opinion that the measure was unconstitutional.
Sachs, noting that the bill was "substantially akin" to one passed by the Arkansas legislature that the courts ruled unconstitutional, said requiring the teaching of creation science in schools "would not only have the effect of advancing religion but would promote one religious belief over another."
Already one of Scannello's colleagues, Del. David B. Shapiro (D-Baltimore), has announced that he will propose an amendment to the bill that would require schools to teach not only Judeo-Christian theories of the origins of life, but also theories propounded in the religious teachings of Confucianism, Shintoism, Hinduism and African and American Indian tribes.
The simple purpose of the amendment, Shapiro says, is to kill Scannello's bill.
Even the archbishop of Baltimore's Catholic archdiocese, the Most Rev. William B. Borders, has publicly criticized the measure, as have other religious organizations.
Delegates asked to assess the bill's future in the legislature this year have said that it has no chance of passing.
"This is a Moral Majority sort of issue supported by fundamentalist groups," says Del. Wendell H. Phillips (D-Baltimore), an ordained minister, reflecting the views of some of his colleagues. "There is no law now that says you can't teach creation in schools. What I resent is the disguise. They really mean teaching religion not science . They don't see the way this strips down the dignity of the faith."
While there is little political hope for other measures that fit into the same rough category of "new right" legislation--such as legalizing whipping as a form of punishment, making ex-convicts repay the state for their room and board in prison, and sending welfare payments to landlords instead of to welfare tenants to ensure that their rent is paid in full and on time--there are a few that House leaders say could sneak through.
Among the likely candidates for approval are two bills that would require periods of "silent meditation" in schools. Many supporters of these measures come from new Christian schools that have proliferated in the state, and they packed a hearing room two weeks ago and testified for hours and hours. Several legislators who asked not to be named said that, as a result of the hearings, some members of the House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee said they would vote to pass one of these bills.