OLD ISSUES never die. They just move to California. A San Diego publisher of religious books, Kelly Segraves, born 19 years after Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan argued the 1925 Dayton, Tenn., trial of John T. Scopes, has sued California's State Board of Education, hoping to compel public schools to teach the Biblical story of creation as a valid scientific theory along with the theory of evolution.
In fact, the debate over inclusion of Biblical creation in the science curriculum has spread to 15 states, according to Philip J. Hilts' story yesterday, three of which -- South Dakota, Wisconsin and Missouri -- "now provide instruction on creation as part of public school biology." California schools "teach" creationist doctrine in social studies classrooms, not as gospel presumably (which would pose an obvious First Amendment problem), but as one set of arguments in a continuing political controversy that divides Christian fundamentalists not only from atheists and other non-Christians but from many of their modernist Christian brethren.
But by no means should the current California dispute be seen as a simple rerun of earlier Darwinist-fundamentalist battles such as the Scopes case. For one thing, Scopes was tried and convicted for violating a Tennessee statute that outlawed teaching evolution in state-supported schools at a time when creationist doctrines could not be challenged legally in the state's classrooms. In California, however, the creationists are suing to establish a beachlead in today's biology lecture halls. For almost a decade, moreover, the California State Board of Education has been a constant battleground on the issues. During the Reagan administration, a more pro-religious board tilted toward accepting the Biblical account of a six-day creation as scientifically respectable, but Jerry Brown's governorship brought a resurgence of support on the board for the evolutionary account of creation as a process that has taken thousands of years. Even under Mr. Reagan, the board conceded that "most scientists agree that the theory of organic evolution is the best scientific description we have to account for the complex forms of life in the past and present."
Teaching the Biblical doctrines of creation as scientific truth violates the First Amendment rights of non-believers today just as much as in the past. As matters stand, the creationists in California get a thorough -- though not uncritical -- hearing in social studies classrooms. Their beliefs deserve no more display in biology classrooms than do the dogmas of scientists in the realms of politics and ethics.
Even the creationists' historic enemy, H. L. Mencken, found it necessary to concede that modernists like himself confronted an underlying dilemma on the issue. For Mencken, "the Tennessee anti-evolution law, whatever its wisdom, was at least constitutional . . . the yahoos of the State had a clear right to have their progeny taught whatever they chose, and kept secure from whatever knowledge violated their superstitions." Change "constitutional" to "understandable," "yahoos" to "people" and "superstitions" to "religion," and less sardonic observers might defend the right of California creationists to teach their doctrine in the schools -- though not as science, a cumulative and self-corrective process of analysis, but as one of any contending moral philosophies that deserve scrutiny in a pluralist republic.