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Epperson v. Arkansas

Significance

The decision demanded that governments refuse to favor any particular religion or religious theory over another.

A young schoolteacher named Susan Epperson found herself caught in a dilemma at the beginning of the 1965 school year. Little did she know at that time that her dilemma would end up being solved by the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case Epperson v. Arkansas. Reminiscent of the famous Scopes monkey trial, Tennessee v. Scopes, of 1925, the significance of Epperson v. Arkansas is that our government cannot and should not favor any one religion over another.

At the beginning of the 1965 school year, Epperson, a woman with a master's degree in zoology from the University of Illinois, began to review the textbook she was told to use to teach her tenth grade biology class. A biology teacher at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, Epperson realized, after reviewing the chapters in the textbook, that one of the chapters contained information about evolution. The theory of evolution is that humans developed over time from lower animal forms.

Epperson's dilemma was this: she was supposed to teach the class using the textbook. However, she knew if she taught the chapter on evolution contained in the textbook that she would be fired. She knew the school system would seek her dismissal because on the law books in the state of Arkansas at that time was a statute that made it against the law to teach evolution in any state supported school.

Filing suit in the local chancery court, Epperson sought to have the law deemed null and void and she wanted to prevent the school system from firing her. The chancery court said that the law violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment grants all Americans freedom of speech and prevents the government from favoring one religion over another. The Fourteenth Amendment extends the First Amendment to the states. Epperson's dilemma continued as the case was appealed. The Arkansas Supreme Court reversed the decision of the chancery court. In a short statement, the Arkansas Supreme Court said the law was legal because the state has the power to decide what the curriculum is in its public schools. However, the Arkansas Supreme Court did not express any opinion as to whether or not the law allows a teacher to explain the theory of evolution.

Next came Epperson's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The High Court reversed the Arkansas Supreme Court's decision and said that the Arkansas law could not stand. Justice Fortas explained the U.S. Supreme Court's view. He said that our democratic government must remain neutral when it comes to religious theory. In expressing the views of the Court, Justice Fortas quoted other precedent-setting cases including Watson v. Jones. In 1872, in Watson v. Jones, the U.S. Supreme Court said "the law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect."

In comparing Epperson v. Arkansas to other similar cases, the U.S. Supreme Court, it should be noted, took similar positions in two other cases. The High Court held closely to the separation between church and state in 1962 in Engel v. Vitale and in 1963 in Abington School District v. Schempp.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Epperson v. Arkansas told the American public, and especially its school systems that the protection of constitutional freedoms is vital in our schools. In addition to quoting from Watson v. Jones, Justice Fortas talked about other cases including Everson v. Board of Education. In Everson v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a state law that provided free bus service to school children, both public and private school children. During the Eversoncase the High Court said, "Neither a state nor the federal government can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another."

In Epperson v. Arkansas the U.S. Supreme Court went as far back as to quote Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson said the First Amendment to the Constitution was intended to erect a "wall of separation" between church and state. In making its decision in Epperson, the U.S. Supreme Court was aided by the precedents set in previous freedom of religion cases.

In summary, Epperson v. Arkansas is significant because it demanded governments refuse to favor any particular religion or religious theory over another. Governments must maintain a religious neutrality, the Supreme Court said in Epperson. If they do not, they are infringing on a person's constitutional rights set forth in the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Epperson v. Arkansas - Significance, Further Readings