Epperson v. Arkansas
Decided on Nov. 12, 1968; 393 US 97


The Court overturned an Arkansas law, which prohibited the teaching of evolution because the theory of evolution conflicted with the account of the origin of man set forth in the Book of Genesis, on the ground that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

 

I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed: Free speech, separation of church and state

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does a law forbidding the teaching of evolution violate either the free speech rights of teachers or the Establishment clause of the First Amendment?

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

"Appellant Epperson, an Arkansas public school teacher, brought this action for declaratory and injunctive relief challenging the constitutionality of Arkansas' 'anti-evolution' statute. That statute makes it unlawful for a teacher in any state-supported school or university to teach or to use a textbook that teaches 'that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals.'

The State Chancery Court held the statute an abridgment of free speech violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The State Supreme Court, expressing no opinion as to whether the statute prohibits 'explanation' of the theory or only teaching that the theory is true, reversed the Chancery Court. In a two-sentence opinion it sustained the statute as within the State's power to specify the public school curriculum."

On appeal, the US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Arkansas.
B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
"The Arkansas statute is an arbitrary exercise of state power, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause. The anti-evolution statute is a religious law, and as such, is in violation of the First Amendment's anti-establishment clause. The statute violates the teachers' right to freedom of speech and the students' right to learn, both guaranteed by the First Amendment, without any clear and present danger to any substantial state interest." "The state cited the famous Tennessee case of Scopes v State, which upheld a similar anti-evolution statute in 1927. The anti-evolution statute is clear and definite and not vague. It is a valid exercise of the state's power to define the curriculum of the public schools and not an unreasonable encroachment on the teacher's freedom of speech. A state that prohibits the teaching of the theory of evolution does not deny religious freedom."
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Eugene R. Warren argued the cause for appellants. With him on the brief was Bruce T. Bullion.

Briefs of amici curiae, urging reversal, were filed by Leo Pfeffer, Melvin L. Wulf, and Joseph B. Robison for the American Civil Liberties Union et al., and by Philip J. Hirschkop for the National Education Association of the United States et al.

Don Langston, Assistant Attorney General of Arkansas, argued the cause for appellee. With him on the brief was Joe Purcell, Attorney General.


IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"The sole reason for the Arkansas law is that a particular religious group considers the evolution theory to conflict with the account of the origin of man set forth in the Book of Genesis.

The First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.

A State's right to prescribe the public school curriculum does not include the right to prohibit teaching a scientific theory or doctrine for reasons that run counter to the principles of the First Amendment."

The Supreme Court held that "the Arkansas law is not a manifestation of religious neutrality" and "violates the First Amendment's prohibition of state laws respecting an establishment of religion."

The United States Supreme Court reversed the Supreme Court of Arkansas judgment.

Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con
  • Fortas, A. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Stewart, P. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Black, H. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Harlan, J. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Warren, E. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged reversal of the judgment of the Supreme Court of Arkansas; the Supreme Court reversed in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.