The Supreme Court, acting in a case with echoes of the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial," said yesterday that it will hear arguments next term on whether states may require the teaching of creationism in public schools when the theory of evolution is taught.
The court said that it will review a ruling last year by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that struck down a Louisiana law requiring lessons on evolution to be "balanced" by teaching "creation-science."
Creation-science, although supported by fundamentalist religious groups, does not necessarily advocate the biblical account of creation but holds that developed life forms appeared suddenly several thousand years ago.
The theory of evolution holds, instead, that life forms developed over millions of years.
A three-judge appeals panel ruled that the 1981 law violated constitutional separation of church and state. The panel said that the theory of creationism "is a religious belief."
In 1925, schoolteacher John Scopes was convicted and fined $100 for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution when Tennessee law made it a crime to teach anything other than the biblical theory of creation.
The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned his conviction and the case never reached the U.S. Supreme Court, although in 1968 the high court struck down an Arkansas law that barred the use of textbooks teaching evolution.
The appeals court panel said that the Louisiana law "continues the battle [fundamentalist lawyer] William Jennings Bryan carried to his grave" after losing to Scopes' lawyer, Clarence Darrow.
The law's "intended effect," the panel said, "is to discredit evolution by counterbalancing its teaching at every turn with the teaching of creationism, a religious belief."
The full appeals court voted 8 to 7 not to hear an appeal from the panel's ruling. The dissenters accused the majority of rejecting Darrow's view that "truth was truth and could always be taught -- whether it favored religion or not."
The creation-science movement's leading attorney, Atlanta lawyer Wendell R. Bird, is special counsel to the Louisiana attorney general for this case.
Through a spokeswoman, Bird said he is pleased that the court has agreed to hear the appeal.
But Anthony Podesta, president of the advocacy group People for the American Way, called upon the justices to uphold the appeals court, saying that creationism is a "religious belief, not a science."
An Arkansas law similar to Louisiana's "Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act" was struck down by a federal court in 1982 and was not appealed to the high court.
The case that the Supreme Court agreed to hear next fall is Edwards v. Aguillard.