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Noah's Ark case leaves professor high and dry

LAST April, when the Federal Court in Sydney began hearing what became known across Australia as the "Noah's Ark case", Justice Ronald Sackville asked, "Where will we start?". The senior counsel for Professor Ian Plimer answered: "In the beginning . . ."

It was a suitably biblical response to a case in which science confronted creationism. Now the case has ended with the conflict between science and religion set to remain eternal. Both sides in the dispute claimed victory, but neither was really a winner.

Professor Plimer, head of earth sciences at the University of Melbourne, had accused an elder of the Hills Bible Church in Sydney, Allen Roberts, of breaching Australia's Trade Practices Act in a series of public lectures in 1992, in which he claimed a boat-shaped rock formation in eastern Turkey contained Noah's Ark.

Justice Sackville found that Mr Roberts had made false and misleading claims, and fined him Aus$2500 (Pounds 1160) for using an illustration without permission from a book written by an American marine salvage expert, David Fasold, who had joined Professor Plimer in the action.

But the judge rejected Professor Plimer's argument that the Trade Practices Act could extend beyond the commercial realm to cover false claims made in public.

"Some issues - no matter how great the passions they arouse - are more appropriately dealt with outside the courtroom," he said.

The judge refused to impose an injunction called for by Professor Plimer against Mr Roberts expressing his views.

From the start, the outcome of the case - and the case itself - seemed destined to confound many people's expectations.

For instance, before giving evidence Professor Plimer swore on the Bible, but Mr Roberts gave an affirmation. After the judge announced his decisions, Professor Plimer said, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh".

Newspaper leader writers, while endorsing Professor Plimer's stand, welcomed the judge's intimation that issues of freedom of speech were at stake.

Justice Sackville warned that great caution should be used in seeking to restrain statements of religious or ideological belief, at least when commercial gain was not the prime motive.

"Unless caution is exercised, there is a serious risk that the courts will be used as a means of suppressing debate and discussion on issues of general interest to the community," he said.

Outside the court, Mr Roberts said he felt completely vindicated by the decision, but refused to comment on the finding that he had made false statements.

Professor Plimer declared he was disappointed but not beaten. The case had shown the fraud inherent in creationism, he said.

"It's bad science, it's bad religion and it's underpinned by misleading and deceptive conduct," he said.

Now facing a huge bill for legal costs - the case is said to have cost both sides Aus$500,000 - and having been forced to sell his house in Melbourne, Professor Plimer said he would consider an appeal.

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