The legal conflict over the teaching of Darwinism in public schools began with the 1925 Scopes trial. But it was not until 1968 that the U.S. Supreme Court, in Epperson v. Arkansas, struck down as unconstitutional an antievolution statute similar to the one upheld in both Scopes and the Tennessee Supreme Court (Scopes v. State ).
This case concerns the constitutionality of a 1929 Arkansas statute that prohibited the teaching of evolution— in either textbooks or by classroom instructors— in all state-supported educational institutions, including universities, colleges, and public schools. The statute defined evolution as ‘‘the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals.’’
In the beginning of the 1965 school year, Susan Epperson, a tenth-grade biology teacher in Little Rock, was provided with a new textbook from which she was to instruct her students. Unlike the one she had used the previous school year, this textbook ‘‘contained a chapter setting forth ‘the theory about the origin . . . ofman from a lower form of animal.’’’ This put Epperson in a quandary: if she uses the staterequired textbook, she violates the state’s law and subjects herself to criminal prosecution and termination. Joined by other parties, Epperson filed a suit in Chancery Court. That court held that the statute violated Epperson’s First Amendment freedom of speech and thought. The court also prohibited the state from terminating Epperson based on any alleged violation of the statute. The Arkansas Supreme Court reversed on appeal.
The Supreme Court held that the statute was unconstitutional because it violated both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment. The Court concluded that the statute proscribed evolution solely because it is inconsistent with the creation story in the Book of Genesis. The court cited two reasons for this conclusion: (1) ‘‘no suggestion has been made that Arkansas’ law may be justified by considerations of state policy other than the religious view of some of its citizens,’’ and (2) ‘‘fundamentalist sectarian conviction was and is the law’s reason for existence.’’ The second reason was supported by the historical origin of the Arkansas statute and its connection to the Tennessee statute adjudicated in Scopes. Thus, the statute had no secular purpose.
The Court did not base its holding, as the Chancery Court did, on the teacher’s right to freedom of speech, but rather, on the principle that ‘‘government . . . must be neutral in matters of religious theory, doctrine, and practice.’’ Arkansas’ statute was not religiously neutral, for it did not prohibit from its academic institutions all discussion of human origins, but rather, singled out one view to prohibit, evolution, because of its apparent conflict with a religious belief.
Epperson’s importance lies in its establishing the principle of ‘‘religious neutrality’’ as central to public school curricula, especially in the sciences. That principle, however, cuts both ways, for it means that scientific criticisms of evolution that may be consistent with certain religious beliefs may pass constitutional muster. For such views typically appeal to public reasons—empirical facts and widely held conceptual notions—that do not contain religious texts or dogmas.
FRANCIS J. BECKWITH
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987); Scopes Trial; Teaching ‘‘Creation Science’’ in Public Schools; Teaching Evolution in Public Schools