Missing witnesses and a divided defense muddled the issue.
Rather than Eden, the appropriate biblical setting for Arkansas’ creation-science trial would seem to be the Tower of Babel, also found in Genesis.
There were multitudes of sides: evolutionists versus creationists; evolutionists versus evolutionists; creationists versus creationists; liberals versus conservatives.
These were the constitutional issues to be decided in Little Rock, Arkansas: Whether Act 590 of 1981 violated the separation of church and state, abridged academic freedom, and was too vague to be understood. Underlying all this was the question: Is creation-science as defined in this law really science, or is it just religion in disguise?
By the trial’s end, it seemed that the state would be hard pressed to persuade Federal District Court Judge William R. Overton that “scientific creationism” was anything but a Sunday school lesson, but Overton seemed to be in no hurry to rule.
Overton flatly told a high school science teacher who was testifying for the law that creation-science belonged in Sunday school. And Overton made another revealing statement in his closing comments at the end of the trial, December 17:
“I will not undertake to decide the validity of the biblical version of the creation of earth and man,” Overton said, “Nor will I decide the validity of the theory of evolution.” The state had been trying to divorce the creation law from any sort of biblical framework.
It was no surprise to anyone then, when Overton ruled on January 5 that the law was unconstitutional. He declared that creationism was not only religious in nature, it was bad science.
Arkansas’ law was the first of a new type of creationism law. It was the first ever to seek “equal time” for creation with the important provision that no reference be made to any religion or religious writing, namely the Bible. Passed in March 1981, the statute was followed in July by similar legislation in Louisiana. The American Civil Liberties Union also has filed suit there and a trial is expected in the spring or early summer.
Many supporters of the Arkansas law feel that its defense was handled badly. They fear the case may become an unfavorable landmark decision. Meanwhile, they have swung support to the Louisiana defense. Since Louisiana and Arkansas are in different federal appeals court districts, the Louisiana case could become the landmark decision.
The Louisiana attorney general has deputized two evangelical lawyers recognized as experts in First Amendment law: Wendell Bird of El Cajon, California, and John W. Whitehead of Manassas, Virginia. They offered to help the state of Arkansas defend its law, but could not reconcile differences with Attorney General Steve Clark, who handled the case in court. Clark had drawn the criticism of some creationists since the ACLU filed suit against the law in May. They felt he was not dedicated to doing the best job he could in defending the statute.
Two television evangelists, Pat Robertson of the “700 Club” and Jerry Falwell of the “Old-Time Gospel Hour,” fired broadsides at Clark. Robertson charged him with “crookedness,” and Falwell followed with accusations of “collusion” with the ACLU. Falwell and Robertson were incensed that Clark had participated in an ACLU fund-raising auction on November 21.
Clark defended his action by saying he supported a number of nonprofit groups, including such conservative ones as the American Legion. The ACLU got $25 when someone purchased the right to have a meal with the attorney general.
Other developments stole headlines from the central issues of the trial.
There were the missing creationists. Duane T. Gish and Henry M. Morris of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) were conspicuously absent from the lineup of state witnesses. Gish, who did attend the trial, explained that he and Morris did not want to “put ICR on trial.”
There were other witnesses for the defense who did not show up. Several scientists who had been listed as potential witnesses for the state, backed out because of what Clark termed “peer pressure.”
Another state witness, Dr. Dean Kenyon, a biophysicist at San Francisco State University, mysteriously disappeared on the eve of his day in court. He had flown into Little Rock on a Sunday evening, but when one of Clark’s assistants went to take his deposition he could not find him. Kenyon had checked out of the hotel and flown back home. Bird had encouraged Kenyon not to testify, although Kenyon taught evolution theory for 16 years until three years ago when he became a creationist. Bird, who is general counsel to ICR, said he attempted to get other defense witnesses not to testify after he perceived the trial as botched by Clark.
Bird said he was not trying to sabotage Clark’s effort. He said he merely had told several witnesses for the state that “I don’t think you should jeopardize your reputation with the way [the trial] is being handled.” Clark stated he was considering legal action against Bird, whose actions, he said, were “tantamount to tampering with justice.”
The plaintiffs in the trial—23 organizations and individuals, including about a dozen clergymen—argued that the law served to promote only a narrow fundamentalist Christianity. Yet, the strongest testimony for the law clearly came from a Buddhist astrophysicist, N.C. Wickramasinghe, head of the applied mathematics and astronomy department at Wales University. Wickramasinghe, a collaborator with noted British astronomer Fred Hoyle on the theory of “cosmic microbiology,” told the court that Darwinianism is about as plausible as “a tornado blowing through a junkyard and assembling a 747.”
Wickramasinghe is not a “young-earther,” one who subscribes to the theory that the earth is only 6,000 to 10,000 years old. His figures on the age of life on earth coincide with those of most evolutionists, about 3.8 billion years.
Yet he disagrees with the prevalent theory of evolution that life began spontaneously and developed from one-celled organisms to man. There is “not enough time in the whole universe to explain life by the evolution model,” he testified, adding that it is “ridiculous to suppose” life moved from one-celled organisms to incredibly sophisticated forms by billions of what he called genetic “copying errors” (mutations).
Teaching only evolution is “narrow-minded,” Wickramasinghe said, and reflects an “anti-religion bias” that is an extension of the “mechanistic” view of life that was rooted in the Industrial Revolution.
One evolutionist testified on behalf of the creationism law. He was W. Scott Morrow of Spartanburg, South Carolina, and he said the scientific community represents a “stacked deck” for the creationist. “I know enough of my fellow evolutionists to know a closed mind when I see [it],” he told the judge. Holder of a Ph.D., and professor of chemistry at Wofford College, Morrow, when asked to cite an example of discrimination against creationists, could not bring one to mind. Overton interrupted and chastised him for testifying for over an hour without citing an example. After the trial, Morrow said that Overton, too, was closed minded.
One evangelical who testified for the ACLU agrees the law is too narrow. Rather than a poorly handled case, it was a “badly framed law” that damaged the state’s case, according to George Marsden, professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. Marsden feels that the law represents only one extreme view among scientists who are evangelical Christians and believe in creation. He is concerned that the trial has given the impression that Act 590 is the last word on scientific creationism. “I am a creationist whose position is not represented by creation-science” as defined in the law, he said in an interview after the trial.
Norman Geisler of Dallas Theological Seminary feels Marsden, a former colleague, has misread the law. Geisler, who testified on religion for the state and served unofficially as religion consultant, feels that the law does not limit creation-science to those characteristics listed in Section 4a.
Geisler, not a “young-earther” himself, is philosophical about the trial. A loss “may be for the better,” he said in an interview. It might assure creationists of the same sympathy that Clarence Darrow won for evolutionists who were shut out of the classroom a half-century ago.
During the trial, Geisler created a stir in the secular press. An ACLU lawyer pressed him for his view of UFOS, and Geisler said he believed they are caused by Satan. Geisler’s statement made headlines in several papers.
Gish, who is associate director of ICR, was also philosophical about the possibility of a loss. He said ICR had been opposed to such laws that forced the teaching of scientific creationism. He would have preferred to work at the local level and persuade teachers, he said in an interview, but others “were not that patient.”
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