With Edwards v. Aguillard, the United States crawls its way into the 20th century. Early 20th century. The case, in which the Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law requiring that schools give "creation science" equal time with evolution, is a triumph of common sense. But the triumph comes late and accompanied by a 31-page dissent by the smartest jurist on the court. Hold the champagne.

The court ruled that the creationism law had a clear religious purpose: to promote the teaching of Genesis under the guise of a pseudoscientific enterprise called creation science. Justice Scalia, dissenting, claimed that the intent of the law was secular. The Louisiana legislature, he argued, really believed that creation science is science and that "evolution is merely a scientific theory or 'guess' . . . a very bad guess at that . . . it could accurately be termed a 'myth.' "

Scalia, perhaps worried for his reputation, takes pains to say that he may not believe this, but the important question is whether the Louisiana legislators did. The court majority doubts they did. Thus, says Scalia, the court is saying that "the members of the Louisiana Legislature knowingly violated their oaths {to uphold the Constitution} and then lied about it." For shame. The court majority is "impugning the motives" of the law's supporters. Scalia prefers impugning their intelligence. His case rests on the proposition that the Louisiana legislature is made up of yahoos.

The court majority gave the Louisiana legislators a little more credit. They quite plausibly thought they found a legitimate loophole in the First Amendment, that religion dressed up as science could pass constitutional muster. The law is thus not a violation of their oath, but a test of the wisdom of the Supreme Court. A test that seven of nine justices passed.

Scalia accepts as valid the law's stated purpose, which is to advance not religion but "academic freedom." He interprets this to mean "students' freedom from indoctrination." The use of the word indoctrination is clever but misleading. After all, students are taught and made to parrot the laws, findings, and theories of astronomy. This is indoctrination. In the name of academic freedom, should they not be given equal instruction in astrology?

The central fallacy of creation science propagandists is that because science consists of theories, any theory is therefore science. Now, the Flat Earth Society has a theory. Shirley MacLaine has theories. Astrologers have very elegant theories. The idea that the earth was created instantaneously and cleverly loaded with misleading evidence of older ages and extinct species to create the illusion of a past that didn't exist is also a theory, but it is not science. (For many religious people who do not take the Bible literally, it is not religion either, but that is another matter).

There is an amusing and overlooked byway in the Scalia opinion. The majority had ruled that the Louisiana law offered a "discriminatory preference for the teaching of creation science." For example, the law establishes a board of creation scientists to develop curricula, and it specifically prohibits any discrimination against creation scientists. Scalia says that preference giving is alright if you are trying to correct a history of discrimination. And creation scientists have always been discriminated against. "It is hardly surprising, then, that in seeking to achieve a balanced, 'nonindoctrinating' curriculum, the legislators protected from discrimination only those teachers whom they thought were suffering from discrimination." This must be the first time that Scalia has come out for affirmative action for a historically oppressed group.

Having spent 27 pages discerning the Louisiana legislators' purpose in passing this law and assuring us that it is secular (academic freedom), Scalia then argues, in the alternative, that the "purpose test" ought to be thrown out in Establishment Clause cases because "discerning the subjective motivation of those enacting the statute is, to be honest, almost always an impossible task." But Scalia concedes immediately that "it is possible to discern the objective 'purpose' of a statute" (as opposed to the subjective psychological purpose of the individual lawmaker) which he defines as "the public good at which its provisions appear to be directed." Well, in this particular case the public good, the objective purpose, is perfectly clear: to bring the Genesis story to schoolchildren. The purpose is patently religious. Scalia's case, as he defines it himself, collapses.

Is this then the end to the cycle of monkey trials going back to Scopes? No, says The Wall Street Journal, the fundamentalists will be back. First they tried for prayer in the schools. "Told by the court they can't do that, they responded by instead mandating 'scientific creationism.' Now they will have to find something else." Ptolemaic astronomy, perhaps. Or maybe the Julian calendar.

We do not sufficiently understand what ails fundamentalists, the Journal's editors explain, turning their hand to social work. What these people really crave is "instruction in normative moral behavior" and "standards in culture, education and morality." Noble ends, to be sure. But for the Journal to endorse the view that they are advanced by the creation story and discouraged by evolution is to share in the intellectual primitivism that Scalia attributes to the Louisiana legislature.

Perhaps the Journal will offer a survey of the comparative moral behavior and educational achievements of believers in evolution and creation. It is one thing to express sympathy for those concerned with the decline of religion. It is another to pretend that teaching the creation story as biology and history is a moral exercise, let alone a blow for educational standards.