ATLANTA -- Nearly seven months after schools in a suburban Atlanta county were forced to peel off textbook stickers that called evolution a theory, not fact, a federal appeals court is set to reconsider whether the disclaimers were unconstitutional.
In January, a federal judge ordered Cobb County school officials to remove the stickers immediately, saying they were an endorsement of religion. The ruling was appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which is expected to hear arguments today.
Advocates on both sides say the appeals court's decision will go a long way toward shaping a debate between science and religion that has cropped up in various forms around the country.
''If it's unconstitutional to tell students to study evolution with an open mind, then what's not unconstitutional?" said John West, a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that supports intelligent design, the belief that the universe is so complex that it must have been created by a higher power. ''The judge is basically trying to make it unconstitutional for anyone to have a divergent view, and we think that has a chilling effect on free speech."
Opponents of the sticker campaign see it as a backdoor attempt to introduce the biblical story of creation into the public schools -- something the US Supreme Court disallowed in a 1987 case from Louisiana.
''The anti-evolution forces have been searching for a new strategy that would accomplish the same end," said Kenneth Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University and co-author of the science book in question. ''That purpose is, if not to get evolution out of the schools altogether, then at least undermine it as much as possible in the minds of students."
The disclaimers were placed in the books in 2002 by school officials in Cobb County, a suburb of about 650,000 people. The stickers were printed after more than 2,000 parents protested that science texts presented evolution as a fact, with no mention of other theories.
The stickers read: ''This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered."
The school board called the stickers ''a reasonable and evenhanded guide to science instruction" that encourages students to be critical thinkers.
But some parents, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, sued, contending that the stickers violated the constitutional separation of church and state.