Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating (R) has found himself in the middle of an education firestorm--not entirely of his making but which has nevertheless become a political embarrassment for him.

The brouhaha started last month when the Oklahoma State Textbook Committee mandated that publishers wishing to do business with the state place an unusual disclaimer on all new biology books, stating that evolution is a "controversial theory" that refers to the "unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced a world of living things."

The action by the committee--11 Keating appointees empowered by statute to select public school books--was immediately excoriated by scientists and academics as misleading, and an attempt by religious conservatives in this Bible Belt state to promote a thinly veiled creationist agenda over science.

"Why would you appoint biblical literalists to a textbook committee and then be surprised that they want biblical doctrines substituted for science?" the Tulsa World demanded of Keating in one of three tough editorials on the matter.

Local and national science teachers' groups quickly urged educators to reject the lengthy disclaimer, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma is considering whether the disclaimer as worded violates the First Amendment prohibition on the endorsement of religion. Science faculty members at the University of Oklahoma are in the process of drafting an open letter to Keating condemning the action.

And in Washington, Americans United for Separation of Church and State have warned the state in a letter that it is on shaky legal ground. "Having failed at their efforts to have creationism taught as a science in public schools, Religious Right activists are trying other strategies," wrote executive director Barry W. Lynn.

Meanwhile, about 700 teachers, parents and church members signed a petition praising the committee's stand.

Keating said that he was not a party to the committee's decision, but he has publicly supported it. At a recent news conference, he proclaimed that he doesn't think he is descended from a baboon, which prompted the Tulsa World to bluntly call Keating an "ass" on its opinion page. Under the headline "Gov. Gutless," the newspaper accused Keating of being "unwilling to stand up to those who would lead the state back to the stone age on this issue."

"It's much ado about nothing," said a clearly exasperated Keating in an interview this week. "We are not saying you must teach creationism in schools, or you must not teach evolution. We're saying be open-minded to all sides of the debate."

But critics maintain the disclaimer language distorts scientific theory for students who are just learning to think critically.

"To suggest evolution is controversial among biologists is simply untrue and it misleads students," said Michael Nunley, an anthropology professor at the University of Oklahoma. "It's only controversial as a political and religious issue among people who are committed to a different way of looking at the origins of life."

In addition, legal experts question the constitutionality of the disclaimer. The Supreme Court has consistently invalidated statutes that advance religion in public schools. In 1987, the high court struck down a Louisiana "balanced treatment" statute that prohibited the teaching of evolution unless accompanied by the teaching of creation science.

Keating has been a popular two-term governor, but he cannot run again. As the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, he was an early supporter of George W. Bush and helped mobilize support from fellow governors. The flap comes at time when Keating is hoping for a Cabinet post in a potential Bush administration.

A Roman Catholic, Keating said that he believes in evolution, but that he also believes that somewhere along the way "man was infused with a soul--and that is not inconsistent with my religious belief." He said he does not believe teaching creationism should be banned in public schools. He called the disclaimer "thoughtful," but added that it may be "too broad."

The textbook committee, made up of elementary and high school teachers, is charged by state mandate with screening textbooks for Oklahoma's 540 school districts, which then may purchase only approved books from specific publishers. In appointing the committee, Keating bypassed the state's largest teachers union, the Oklahoma Education Association, in favor of members of the more conservative Association of Professional Oklahoma Educators.

It remains unclear whether the committee has overstepped its authority in mandating such a disclaimer. But barring a legal challenge, publishers will be forced to adopt the disclaimer to remain on Oklahoma's approved textbook list.

Committee member John Dickmann, a middle school teacher from Broken Arrow, Okla., said he introduced the disclaimer--identical to one adopted in Alabama--because the committee believed that textbooks rely too much on teaching Darwin's theory of evolution.

"We wanted to send a message to textbook companies that we want a more unbiased viewpoint," Dickmann said. The teacher insisted that for him the decision had "no religious overtones." However, at least one other committee member has said that her intention was to give creationism an equal voice in public school teachings.

Caveat for the Classroom

The Oklahoma State Textbook Committee has mandated that publishers who wish to do business with the state must include a disclaimer in their biology textbooks stating evolution is unproven. Here is an excerpt:

* This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory which some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things, such as plants and humans.

* No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered theory, not fact.

* The word "evolution" may refer to many types of change. Evolution describes changes that occur within a species. (White moths, for example, may "evolve" into gray moths.) This process is microevolution, which can be observed and described as fact. Evolution may also refer to the change of one living thing into another, such as reptiles into birds. This process, called macroevolution, has never been observed and should be considered a theory. Evolution also refers to the unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced a world of living things.

CAPTION: Keating chose the members of the textbook committee that called for the disclaimer on evolution in biology books purchased for state schools.

CAPTION: After Gov. Frank A. Keating said he doesn't think he is descended from a baboon, this editorial cartoon appeared.