The Arkansas "creation science" law failed, as expected, to survive its collision with Judge William Overton and the First Amendment. Creationism, the judge declared, is religion masquerading as science and as such is constitutional contraband.

Tennessee's famous "monkey law," which some observers viewed as a precedent and which stood until a few years ago, was the product of simple ignorance. It merely banned all teaching of evolution that linked men with monkeys.

The Arkansas creation-science law, however, is the product of highfalutin ignorance, veiled in the jargons of pseudo-science. The law would establish the 17th century cosmology of Archbishop Ussher, the English divine who dated the Creation to October 4004 B.C., as a rival to modern biology, geology and astrophysics.

Of its scientific deficiencies much has been said. But one question sums up the embarrassment: if the universe is only 6 to 10 thousand years old, how account for starlight millions of years old just now reaching the Earth's telescopes?

The prosecutors of John T. Scopes in 1925 shrank manfully from all contamination of modern science. Creationism, by contrast, aspires to scientific respectability. Concealed in the Arkansas statute, as in others now pending, is the premise that no system is quite intellectually respectable today unless it seems scientific. Creationism, in other words, worships (a bit heretically, to be sure) before the golden calf of scientism. Scientism, as distinguished from science itself, is the modern ideology that extols scientific inquiry as the only credible source of truth. Apparently the creationists have forgotten the old adage that he who sups with the devil must use a long spoon. So their theology is as dubious as their science.

Consider, for instance, the contention of a prominent creationist thinker, Henry Morris, that evolution "is inconsistent with God's personality (since) if man in His own image was the goal of the evolutionary process, surely God would not have waited until the very tail-end of geologic time before creating personalities."

A well-instructed biologist would observe, of course, that no scientific theory pretends to tell us anything at all about God's purposes. Purpose is not the concern of science any more. And a sound theologian would recall the great question propounded to Job out of the whirlwind: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?" Or in other words, who are you, little man, to speculate idly about divine goals and timetables?

Thanks to Judge Overton's diligent work, creationism stands exposed as small-beer theology masked in pretentious scientism. Which suggests that all of us could use better instruction in both religion and science, the better to learn the valid claims of each.

But that goal seems sure to elude U.S. public schools so long as aggressive sectarians seek to plant their missionary banners in the classroom. Their aggressions not only threaten academic freedom and the ever-timid textbook publishers. They make it hard indeed for the Supreme Court to return, as it should, to a less secularizing interpretation of the establishment clause and make room in the schools for religious instruction.

That instruction has an indispensable place in any civilized curriculum, not only as a source of enlightenment about our moral nature and destiny but, at a more practical level, as the foundation of much in Western history, art and learning that cannot be fully understood without it.

But under the stern rules laid down by the Supreme Court since 1947, and binding Judge Overton and others, the "wall of separation" grows higher. It separates arbitrarily what is not easily separated, including one study and excluding another equally essential, and so becomes a barrier not only against sectarian meddling but against true learning as well.

In their foolish effort to equate creationism with biology, the creationists only encourage the judges to pile on more bricks, to the injury of all inquiring minds.