Epperson v. Arkansas – Case Brief Summary

Summary of Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 89 S. Ct. 266, 21 L. Ed. 2d 228 (1968).

Facts

Arkansas (D) adopted a statute in 1928 that prohibited teaching “the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals”, or using textbooks that included material on evolution. The statute was an adaptation of the law at the center of the “Scopes monkey trial” in Tennessee. Forrest Rozzell, the secretary of the Arkansas Education Association, sought to challenge the law as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. Rozzell recruited Susan Epperson (P) to file a declaratory judgment action to challenge the constitutionality of the statute. Epperson had a master’s degree in zoology and taught 10th grade biology in the Little Rock school system.

Epperson instituted an action in the Chancery Court of the State of Arkansas and after a brief trial the court ruled in favor of Epperson, finding that the law was unconstitutional. Arkansas appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court and the court reversed, holding that the statute was a valid exercise of the state’s power to specify the curriculum in its public schools. Epperson appealed.

Issue

  • Does a law that forbids the teaching of evolution violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?

Holding and Rule (Fortas)

  • Yes. A law that forbids the teaching of evolution violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The court reasoned that the overriding factor was that Arkansas selected from the body of knowledge a particular segment which it prescribed for the sole reason that it was deemed to conflict with a particular religious doctrine; that is, with a particular interpretation of the Book of Genesis by a particular religious group. The court held that the right of a state to select the curriculum for its public schools does not include the right to make it a crime to teach scientific doctrine or theory based on its conflict with a religious belief.

Disposition

Judgment reversed.

Concurrence (Black)

I do not believe that this case presents a justiciable case or controversy. Although the statute was passed by the voters of Arkansas in 1928, there has never been even a single attempt to enforce it. And the pallid, unenthusiastic, even apologetic defense of the Act presented by the State in this Court indicates that the State would make no attempt to enforce the law should it remain on the books for the next century.

See Wallace v. Jaffree for a constitutional law case brief in which the Supreme Court held that a statute is unconstitutional in light of the First Amendment if it is entirely motivated by a purpose to advance religion.


Related posts: