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Epperson vs. Arkansas

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The Epperson vs. Arkansas case involved a 10th grade biology teacher, Susan Epperson, who in 1965 challenged an antievolution law in the State of Arkansas. Epperson won the case in the lower court, but lost on appeal in the State Supreme Court. She finally won the case on November 12, 1968 when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Arkansas law violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which (they claimed) embraces the First Amendment's prohibition of state laws about establishment of religion.

Susan Epperson et al., Appellants, v. Arkansas
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued October 16, 1968.
Decided November 12, 1968.

Background

The Arkansas law at the time made it unlawful for a teacher in any state-supported school or university to teach or use a textbook that claimed "mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals."

Susan Epperson was born and raised in a Presbyterian family in Arkansas. Her father taught biology at a Presbyterian college — the College of the Ozarks. She gained a Bachelor’s degree in biology from the College of the Ozarks, and then moved to Illinois temporarily where she earned a Master’s degree in zoology from the University of Illinois. In 1964 she returned to Arkansas and took up a position teaching biology to 10th grade students at a school in Little Rock. To teach her class, she had to use a textbook that included a chapter on evolution. But if she taught from this chapter it would have been illegal under State law.

The executive secretary of the Arkansas Education Association, Forrest Rozzell, wanted this law struck down. So in a spirit reminiscent of the famous Scopes trial, he and the association’s lawyer, Eugene Warren, began looking for a teacher who would challenge the constitutionality of the State ban on teaching evolution. They found Susan Epperson through family contacts, and convinced her to head the confrontation. She was reluctant at first, but Warren told her they wanted to avoid a courtroom battle and media frenzy, so would try to have the case heard in judge’s chambers.

Court cases

When news got out about the legal challenge, Epperson began receiving hate mail. This increased when the State’s attorney general decided he wanted the case heard in public. Epperson testified in the 1965 State case. She said the attorney general kept challenging her beliefs, and largely didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to evolution. [1]

The Arkansas Education Association’s lawyer managed to keep the argument centered on whether the law was constitutional rather than debating evolution. After the trial, which lasted only one day, the judge ruled in Epperson’s favor.

The State appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court’s ruling and determined that the law was an exercise of the State's power to specify the curriculum in public schools (242 Ark 922, 416 SW2d 322). Epperson’s lawyer appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, which heard the case on October 16, 1968. The court handed down its decision on November 12, 1968, which reversed the earlier State court’s ruling and decided the law was unconstitutional.

Related references

See also