"SOMEWHERE IN heaven, John Scopes is celebrating." That was the comment of the American Civil Liberties Union's executive director Ira Glasser when he learned of Friday's Supreme Court decision on creationism. Mr. Glasser's reference was to the Tennessee biology teacher who was convicted in 1925 because he violated the law of that state prohibiting the teaching of evolution. Darwin's theories, thought to be radical and anti-religious at the beginning of the century, are now taught routinely in American schools. Some fundamentalists, however, still hold to the literal word of the Bible and claim that theirs is a scientific, not just religious, belief.

In 1981 the Louisiana legislature passed and the governor signed legislation forbidding the teaching of evolution in the schools of that state unless such teaching was accompanied by instruction in "creation science." While the drafters of the Louisiana statute claimed they meant to protect academic freedom by requiring equal treatment in the classroom for these two theories, the Supreme Court rejected that argument. Instead the court found that the law had no secular purpose and was in fact designed to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind. Such tailoring of a state school system's science curriculum to conform with a particular set of religious beliefs violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The court's seven-member majority went to the trouble of pointing out what its decision did not do. The First Amendment would not bar the teaching of a variety of theories including creationism, nor would it prevent the legislature from requiring the teaching of scientific critiques of generally accepted theories. The statute at issue, though, was not of this kind since it was drafted specifically to further a particular religious doctrine.

If John Scopes is celebrating somewhere about this case he's probably perplexed that Americans are still arguing about theories that were at issue in the monkey trial. These are more tolerant times in every way, when schools should be encouraged to teach children about different religious beliefs so that they can understand and tolerate the variety of this country's culture. The Louisiana legislature, though, attempted to revert to an earlier era when religious views were taught as fact. The statute was a throwback, and it was doomed from the start. Every court that heard this case thought it was unconstitutional, and Justice White, who concurred with the majority was blunt: "As it comes to us, this is not a difficult case."