WASHINGTON -- Evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg made a fateful decision a year ago.
As editor of the hitherto obscure Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, Sternberg decided to publish a paper making the case for ''intelligent design," a controversial theory that holds that the machinery of life is so complex as to require the hand -- subtle or not -- of an intelligent creator.
Within hours of publication, senior scientists at the Smithsonian Institution -- which has helped fund and run the journal -- lashed out at Sternberg as a shoddy scientist and a closet Bible thumper.
''They were saying I accepted money under the table, that I was a crypto-priest, that I was a sleeper cell operative for the creationists," said Sternberg, 42, a Smithsonian research associate. ''I was basically run out of there."
An independent agency has come to the same conclusion, accusing top scientists at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History of retaliating against Sternberg by investigating his religion and smearing him as a ''creationist."
The US Office of Special Counsel, which was established to protect federal employees from reprisals, examined e-mail traffic from these scientists, and noted that ''retaliation came in many forms. . . . Misinformation was disseminated through the Smithsonian Institution and to outside sources. The allegations against you were later determined to be false."
''The rumor mill became so infected," James McVay, the principal legal adviser in the Office of Special Counsel, wrote to Sternberg, ''that one of your colleagues had to circulate [your resume] simply to dispel the rumor that you were not a scientist."
McVay, who is a political appointee of the Bush administration, acknowledged in the report that a fuller response from the Smithsonian might have tempered his conclusions. As Sternberg is not a Smithsonian employee -- the National Institutes of Health pays his salary -- the special counsel lacks the power to impose a legal remedy.
A spokeswoman for the Smithsonian Institution declined to comment, noting that it has not received McVay's report.
''We do stand by evolution -- we are a scientific organization," said Linda St. Thomas, the spokeswoman. An official privately suggested that McVay might want to embarrass the institution.
It is hard to overstate the passions fired by the debate over intelligent design. President Bush recently said schoolchildren should learn about the theory alongside Darwin's theory of evolution -- a view that goes beyond even the stance of advocates for intelligent design. Dozens of state school boards have tried to mandate the teaching of anti- Darwinian theories.
A small band of scientists argues for intelligent design, saying evolutionary theory's path is littered with too many gaps and mysteries, and cannot account for the origin of life.
Most evolutionary biologists, not to mention much of the broader scientific community, dismiss intelligent design as a sophisticated version of creationism. To teach it in science classes, they say, would be to overturn hundreds of years of scientific progress. The National Museum of Natural History was drawn into this controversy in June, when protest forced it to withdraw from cosponsorship of a documentary on intelligent design.
Sternberg's case has sent ripples across the country. The special counsel accused the National Center for Science Education, or NCSE -- a think tank based in Oakland, Calif., that defends the teaching of evolution -- of orchestrating attacks on Sternberg.
''The NCSE worked closely with" the Smithsonian ''in outlining a strategy to have you investigated and discredited," McVay wrote to Sternberg.
NCSE officials accused McVay of playing out a political agenda. ''I must say that Mr. McVay flatters us beyond our desserts -- the Smithsonian is a distinguished organization of highly competent scientists, and they're not marionettes," said Eugenie Scott, the group's executive director. ''If this was a corporation, and an employee did something that really embarrassed the administration, really blew it, how long do you think that person would be employed?"
Sternberg has seen stress piled upon stress in the past year. His marriage has dissolved, and he no longer comes into the Smithsonian. When the biological society issued a statement disavowing the intelligent-design article by Stephen C. Meyer, a philosopher educated at Cambridge University, Sternberg was advised not to attend. ''I was told that feelings were running so high, they could not guarantee me that they could keep order," Sternberg said.