Epperson v. Arkansas 1968

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Epperson v. Arkansas 1968

Appellants: Susan Epperson, et al.

Appellee: State of Arkansas

Appellants' Claim: That an Arkansas law that forbade her from teaching the theory of evolution to public school students was unconstitutional.

Chief Lawyer for Appellant: Eugene R. Warren

Chief Lawyer for Appellee: Don Langston, Assistant Attorney General of Arkansas

Justices for the Court: Hugo Lafayette Black, William J. Brennan, Jr., William O. Douglas, Abe Fortas (writing for the Court), John Marshall Harlan II, Thurgood Marshall, Potter Stewart, Earl Warren, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: None

Date of Decision: November 12, 1968

Decision: The Arkansas law violated the First Amendment separation of church and state.

Significance: The decision emphasized that governments may not favor one religion over others.

Evolution v. religion

The theory of evolution, developed by Charles Darwin in the mid-nineteenth century, has created a problem regarding freedom of religion in the United States. Evolution teaches that all living creatures, including humans, evolved, that is, descended, from lower species of life. According to evolution, humans are related to gorillas, chimpanzees, and other ape-like animals.

Many religions, including Christianity, teach a different theory called creationism. This theory, found in the Bible's Book of Genesis, says God created humans as they are today. For some people who believe in creationism, evolution is an attack on their religious beliefs. When evolution began to be taught in public schools in the early twentieth century, some people feared it would turn their children away from Christianity. It angered them that their taxes were supporting public schools that might do this. These people passed laws to prevent teachers from giving lessons on evolution.

The most famous anti-evolution law was the one passed in Tennessee in 1925. It prevented instructors from teaching any theory that denied the story of creation as put forth in the Bible. When John T. Scopes was charged with violating the law, the Tennessee Supreme Court said the law was a valid exercise of the state's power to control what is taught in public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court did not consider the issue until forty-three years later, in Epperson v. Arkansas.

Challenging anti-evolution laws

The state of Arkansas passed its own anti-evolution law in 1928. Unlike the one in Tennessee, Arkansas's law did not mention the Bible. It simply made it unlawful for any public school to teach, or to use a textbook that teaches, that humans evolved from lower species of animals. A teacher who violated the law could be fired.

Susan Epperson was a high school biology teacher in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1965. Up until then, the biology textbook approved by the local school board did not mention evolution. That year, however, the school board approved a new textbook that had a whole chapter on evolution. Epperson did not like the anti-evolution law, but she was worried that she could be fired if she used the textbook.

Epperson filed a lawsuit against the state of Arkansas to challenge the anti-evolution law. The trial court decided in Epperson's favor. It said the law violated the First Amendment right to freedom of speech by preventing teachers from speaking about evolution. The Supreme Court of Arkansas reversed this decision. Like the Tennessee Supreme Court in the Scopes case, the Supreme Court of Arkansas said the anti-evolution law was a valid exercise of the state's power to control what is taught in public schools. Epperson appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Saving science

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Arkansas court's ruling and struck down the anti-evolution law. Writing for the Court, Justice Abe Fortas said the anti-evolution law violated the separation of church and state required by the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment. That clause says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Although the First Amendment refers only to the federal government, states must obey it under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Fortas said the Establishment Clause means government must remain neutral about religion. Quoting from another case, Everson v. Board of Education, Fortas said, "Neither [a State nor the Federal Government] can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another."

Fortas said the anti-evolution law favored the Christian theory of creationism found in the Bible's Book of Genesis. Because the law was designed to favor a religion, it violated the Establishment Clause and was unconstitutional.


E volution was the subject of the famous trial of John T. Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. Scopes taught a lesson on evolution to his high school class on April 24 of that year. Two months earlier, Tennessee had passed a law making it a crime "to teach any theory that denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible" and "to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals."

Tennessee charged Scopes with violating the anti-evolution law. Because the theory of evolution teaches that humans are related to ape-like ancestors, the case became known as the "monkey trial." Scopes's legal team included famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow. By defending Scopes, Darrow fought for the right to teach science in public schools. Prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, who represented the state of Tennessee, said the case was a battle between evolution and Christianity. He said, "If evolution wins in Dayton, Christianity goes."

Christianity won as the jury found Scopes guilty of violating the law. Although the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed Scopes's conviction on a legal technicality, it said the anti-evolution law was legal. It would be another forty-three years before the U.S. Supreme Court, in Epperson, ruled against anti-evolution laws like the one in Tennessee.

What about the freedom of religion?

Justice Hugo Lafayette Black wrote a concurring opinion, meaning he agreed with the Court's decision. Justice Black, however, disagreed with the reason for the Court's decision. Black thought the anti-evolution law was too vague, meaning it was too difficult to understand.

Justice Black did not think the law violated the Establishment Clause. In fact, he said that forcing states to allow schools to teach evolution violated the right to freedom of religion. It forces students who believe in creationism to learn about an anti-religious theory. Apparently Justice Black's solution would be to keep both creationism and evolution out of public schools.

The battle continues

This battle between religion and science in public schools did not end after Epperson. In 1987 in Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court struck down a law that required public schools to teach creationism along with evolution. It said the law violated the Establishment Clause. In 1999 Kansas deleted evolution from state tests to discourage schools from teaching the subject. Alabama and Nebraska passed laws allowing teachers to discuss theories other than evolution, which probably meant creationism. New Mexico passed a law saying schools could teach only evolution. With the controversy still alive, the issue may be headed for the Supreme Court once again.

Suggestions for further reading

Blake, Arthur. The Scopes Trial: Defending the Right to Teach. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1994.

Evans, J. Edward. Freedom of Religion. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications Company, 1990.

Farish, Leah. The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech, Religion, and the Press. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Frost-Knappman, Elizabeth, Edward W. Knappman, and Lisa Paddock. Courtroom Drama: 120 of the World's Most Notable Trials. Vol. 3. Detroit, MI: UXL, 1998.

Gay, Kathlyn. Church and State: Government and Religion in the United States. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1992.

Hirst, Mike. Freedom of Belief. New York, NY: Franklin Watts, 1997.

Kleeberg, Irene Cumming. Separation of Church and State. New York, NY: Franklin Watts, 1986.

Klinker, Philip A. The First Amendment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

McGowan, Tom. The Great Monkey Trial: Science Versus Fundamentalism in America. New York, NY: Franklin Watts, 1990.

Moss, Joyce and George Wilson. Profiles in American History: Significant Events and the People Who Shaped Them. Vol. 6, Immigration to Women's Rights and Roles. Detroit, MI: UXL, 1994.

Sherrow, Victoria. Freedom of Worship. Brookfield. CT: Millbrook Press, 1997.