Epperson v. State of Arkansas

In Epperson v. State of Arkansas (1968), the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a state law that barred the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution because although the statute obviously did not coerce anyone to support religion or participate in any religious practice, the law was enacted for a singularly religious purpose. Epperson is most often cited for its importance with regard to the body of law surrounding the teaching of religious doctrine in public schools.

Facts of the Case

At issue in Epperson was a 1928 Arkansas statute, enacted in the wake of the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial, that made it illegal for teachers in statesupported schools or universities to teach the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals or to adopt or use a textbook that teaches this theory of mankind’s evolution. Violation of the statute was a misdemeanor and subjected violators to dismissal from their positions.

Until 1965, the science textbooks used in the Little Rock, Arkansas, school system did not contain a section on evolution. However, for the 1965–1966 academic year, the school administration adopted a textbook that contained a chapter on evolution. Susan Epperson was a biology teacher in the Little Rock school system who was confronted with the task of teaching from the new textbook that included the prohibited material. Specifically, if Epperson taught from the new textbook, she feared being dismissed. As such, Epperson sought a declaration that the Arkansas statute was void. She also unsuccessfully sought to enjoin the state and the school officials of the Little Rock school system from dismissing her for violating the statute’s provisions.

The Court’s Ruling

On further review of a ruling of the Supreme Court of Arkansas, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed in favor of Epperson. In its analysis, the Court reasoned that it was clear that the statute sought to prevent its teachers from discussing the theory of evolution because it was contrary to the belief of many of its citizens, who thought that the Bible’s book of Genesis had to be the exclusive source of information as to the origins of humankind. Thus, despite the fact that there was support for the statute among those who believed that teaching evolution was offensive to their religious views, the Court still ruled that since it was not an act of religious neutrality, it violated the Establishment Clause.

More specifically, the Court explained that the law was unconstitutional because the government, regardless of whether it is at the state or national level, must adopt an approach of neutrality in matters of religious theory, doctrine, and practice. At the same time, the Court was of the opinion that the government cannot be hostile to any religion or to the advocacy of “no religion” and that it may not aid, foster, or promote one religion or religious theory against another or even against the militant opposite.

Epperson was the first in a series of legal setbacks to creationists and, more recently, supporters of intelligent design, who have attempted to promote religion through America’s public schools. Epperson may have settled the constitutionality of outlawing the teaching of evolutionary theory in the classroom, but it did not end the quest of fundamentalists to alter school curriculum to conform to a literal reading of the Bible. The battle between proponents of a literal reading of the Bible’s creation stories and the supporters of evolutionary theory over which viewpoint should be taught in schools is still being fought. Even so, Epperson, like any number of cases that followed it, prevents states and local school officials from using particular religious beliefs as the basis for education or curricula.

Malila N. Robinson

See also Edwards v. Aguillard; First Amendment; Fourteenth Amendment; Prayer in Public Schools; Religious Activities in Public Schools; Scopes Monkey Trial; State Aid and the Establishment Clause

Legal Citations

  • McLean v. Arkansas, 529 F. Supp. 1255 (E.D. Ark. 1982). 
  • Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987). 
  • Epperson v. State of Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968). 
  • Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education, 530 U.S. 1251 (1997). 
  • Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005).