Epperson v. Arkansas

Following is the case brief for Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968)

Case Summary of Epperson v. Arkansas:

  • The State of Arkansas passed a law in 1928 that made it a criminal offense to teach evolution in public schools
  • A teacher, Epperson, in the 1965-66 term was told to teach from a new textbook that had a chapter on Darwin’s theory of evolution.
  • Afraid that she would lose her job and be criminally prosecuted, Epperson sought a declaratory judgment in state court, enjoining any negative consequence against her for teaching the chapter.
  • The State trial court held that the law was unconstitutional as abridging freedom of speech.
  • The Arkansas Supreme Court reversed in an unclear two-sentence opinion, stating only that the State had the power to specify school curriculum.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, holding that the law represents the State’s support of one religion over other points of view in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Epperson v. Arkansas Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

The State of Arkansas passed a law in 1928 that prohibited the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools.  The statute made such teaching a criminal offense.  Interestingly, the law mirrored the Tennessee law, passed in 1925, which was the basis for the famous Scopes “monkey trial.”

Susan Epperson a relatively new teacher in the Little Rock school system was told to use a new textbook for her 10th grade biology class in the 1965-66 school year.  The textbook had a chapter on Darwin’s theory of evolution.  She feared that she may lose her job and be criminally prosecuted for teaching that chapter.  So, she sought a declaratory judgment, stating that the 1928 law was void, and that the State could not dismiss her for violation of the statute.  Parents of two school children joined in Epperson’s suit.

Procedural History:

  • The State trial court held that the statute violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which embraces the right to freedom of speech in the First Amendment.
  • In a two-sentence opinion, the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed, stating only that the State has the power to dictate curriculum in public schools.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1257(2).

Issue and Holding:

Does a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools violate the ConstitutionYes.

Judgment:

The decision of the Arkansas Supreme Court is reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

A statute that prohibits the teaching of evolution in public schools violates the Fourteenth Amendment, which embraces the First Amendment’s prohibition on the establishment of religion.

Reasoning:

The Federal and State governments, under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, must remain neutral towards all religions and the belief in non-religion.  In this case, it is clear that the Arkansas statute was motivated by a desire by Christians, who represent only a portion of the State, to teach only one account of the origin of man set forth in the Book of Genesis, and to block any other account, such as the theory of evolution.

Such motivation does not comport with religious neutrality.  Therefore, the law must be struck down as a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

The Court need not determine whether the 1928 statute is unconstitutionally vague, because the basis for striking down the law under the Establishment Clause basis is clear.

Concurring Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Black):

It is unclear whether there is even a case or controversy before the Court.  Epperson is likely no longer teaching, and the children whose parents joined the suit are likely no longer in high school.  Therefore, the case is moot.  In fact, even the State of Arkansas only half-heartedly defended the statute, given that the statute has never been enforced since its passage.

But, if the case must be heard, then it appears that the 1928 statute is unconstitutionally vague.  The majority of the Court is wrong to enter into speculation about the motives of those who passed the law.  It also might be argued that striking down the law, thereby allowing the teaching of evolution, is also not a religiously neutral act.  Finally, the academic freedom the Court supports here may lead a teacher to go beyond his or her job duties, in the name of the First Amendment.  The case should be decided on vagueness grounds, or be remanded so the Arkansas Supreme Court can clarify its holding.

Concurring Opinion (Harlan):

The Arkansas Supreme Court simply “passed the buck” on this statute, but the Court must analyze the constitutional claims before it.  The majority should have focused only on the Establishment Clause rationale, and not even discussed vagueness or the freedom of speech issues.

Concurring Opinion (Stewart):

The statute is simply so vague as to be invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Significance:

Epperson v. Arkansas is a significant case because it puts to rest, in constitutional terms, the issue raised by the famous Scopes “monkey trial” decades before this case was decided, namely that teaching evolution cannot be excluded from public school.  Based on the concurring opinions, there were other grounds to find the anti-evolution statute invalid.  Yet, the Court majority found a violation of the Establishment Clause to be the most persuasive grounds to decide the case.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

 

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