Even though the theory of evolution continues to prompt vigorous controversies among scientists, most of its backers agree that they seem to be winning their battle against religious creationism.

Despite attempts by religious fundamentalists to force the teaching of biblical creationism in public schools, advocates of evolution theory say that no state still enforces such laws.

"It looks as if the tide has turned," said Karl Fezer, who edits a pro-evolution newsletter that circulates among a growing number of scientists and others fighting creationism.

Fezer, a biology professor at Concord College in Athens, W.Va., and others credit the turnaround to two factors.

One was a Supreme Court decision that declared Arkansas' so-called equal-time law unconstitutional. In that case, the court agreed with the American Civil Liberties Union, which had filed suit, that a state law requiring schools to teach biblical creationism illegally favored one religion. The court also ordered the state to pay ACLU's court costs.

The decision cost Arkansas about $500,000, a factor evolutionists say may have discouraged other states from passing "equal-time" laws and facing similar suits, despite mounting pressure from the religious right.

The second factor has been a reversal in the fortunes of scientists who volunteer to debate creationists in public forums.

For many years, creationists challenged evolutionists to debate them before college audiences and community groups.

"The scientists who volunteered to take them on usually figured it would be easy to beat somebody who was just quoting the Bible," Fezer said. As it turned out, the creationists were skilled debaters with well-honed lines of argumentation that the scientists could not immediately counter. By their own admission, the evolutionists were roundly beaten in the minds of the spectators.

When it became apparent that such forums helped sway public opinion, several scientists elected to study the creationist positions and prepare the documentation needed to refute them. They proved successful, winning more and more debates.

"The creationists aren't so interested in debating anymore," Fezer said.

Evolutionists also point to a more concrete victory. The state school board in Texas, a bastion of religious fundamentalism, was declared unconstitutional by the state attorney general and replaced by a board more receptive to the teaching of evolution. The move followed a report critical of the quality of public education in Texas by a commission headed by industrialist Ross Perot.

The new board recently completed its selection of textbooks for use by the state's schools. Of the five biology texts approved, none offers a word about biblical creation.

"This was a real turnaround," said Wayne Moyer of People for the American Way, a Washington-based organization active in textbook censorship cases. "For the first time, we felt that science was on the inside and creationism was on the outside."

Moyer and Fezer said that although organized creationism is less conspicuous, many of its advocates remain active on local school boards.

Moyer said this pressure was being met by growing numbers of citizen groups protesting textbook censorship to local school boards. Moyer said his organization has more than 120,000 members nationwide.

"All in all, I would say the situation is markedly better than it was just a couple of years ago," he said. "Schools are getting back to teaching science as science."