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Epperson v. Arkansas

Epperson v. Arkansas, a case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, challenged the right of a state to outlaw the teaching of evolution in public schools. On November 12, 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that Arkansas’s Initiated Act Number 1, an antievolution law approved by Arkansas voters in 1928, violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment and was therefore unconstitutional, thus setting a legal trend for the nation as a whole.

The antievolution movement in Arkansas came into its own just as it was declining nationwide. The 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial made fundamentalist groups objects of ridicule and thus sent them retreating from the cultural and political mainstream. In January 1927, however, State Representative Astor L. Rotenberry of Pulaski County introduced an antievolution bill into the Arkansas legislature. In February, it passed the House by a vote of 51–46 but was tabled by the Senate twice.

Rotenberry then advocated for the use of an initiative to decide the issue by popular vote. He was joined in this by Ben Bogard, pastor of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Little Rock (Pulaski County), who quickly formed the American Antievolution Association to help get such an initiated act on the ballot in 1928. Rotenberry, Bogard, and Dr. John F. Hammett, president of the Arkansas Antievolution League, were the chief sponsors of this act, which stipulated that “it shall be unlawful for any teacher or other instructor at any University, College, Normal, Public School, or any other institution of the State… to teach the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals.” In addition, the act outlawed textbooks which taught evolutionary theory and imposed a $500 fine for violating any of its provisions. Supporters of the act framed the debate as a contest between the Bible and atheism, adding that taxpayers had the right to determine what was taught in Arkansas schools. In the November election, Initiated Act Number 1 carried by a vote of 108,991 to 63,406.

Though the law was never really enforced, 1937, 1959, and 1965 witnessed three legislative attempts to overturn the act, but none of them ever came to a vote. Public reaction to the 1965 attempt, however, stirred debate on the issue and led Forrest Rozzell, executive secretary of the Arkansas Education Association, to begin planning a lawsuit against the state. Susan Epperson, a biology teacher at Central High School in Little Rock, signed on as the plaintiff, filing suit on December 6, 1965, in Pulaski County Chancery Court. She specifically argued that failing to teach evolutionary theory in class would abrogate “the obligations of a responsible teacher of biology” and thus do harm to her students.

Many feared that the trial, which began on April 1, 1966, would be another circus akin to Scopes, especially given Arkansas Attorney General Bruce Bennett’s publicly expressed desire to disprove evolutionary theory, but Judge Murray O. Reed maintained decorum, keeping the focus on the constitutionality of the law and not the legitimacy of Darwin’s theories. The trial lasted only two hours and twenty minutes. On May 27, 1966, Judge Reed declared Initiated Act Number 1 unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated freedom of speech. The next year, however, the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed the decision, ruling that the act constituted “a valid exercise of the state’s power to specify the curriculum in its public schools.” Epperson’s party appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

When the Supreme Court struck down Initiated Act Number 1, it confined its ruling to concerns over the act’s violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. In issuing the majority opinion, Justice Abe Fortas noted “that the First Amendment does not permit the State to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma.” The act was unconstitutional because it attempted “to blot out a particular theory because of its supposed conflict with the Biblical account, literally read,” and thus was in fact a means of sponsoring religion.

Epperson v. Arkansas settled once and for all the constitutionality of outlawing the teaching of evolutionary theory in the classroom, but it did not end the quest of fundamentalists to change school curriculum to conform to a literal reading of the Bible. The battle between proponents of a literal reading of the Bible’s creation stories and the supporters of evolution over which viewpoint should be taught in schools continues in Arkansas as well as the rest of the nation.

For Additional Information:
English, Debbie. “A fight over Darwin.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 5, 2006, pp. 1J, 6J.

Halliburton Jr., R.  “The Adoption of the Arkansas Anti-Evolution Law.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 23 (Autumn 1964): 271–283.

Larson, Edward J. Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Creation and Evolution. Updated Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Ledbetter, Cal, Jr. “The Antievolution Law: Church and State in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 38 (Winter 1979): 299–328.

Lisenby, William Foy. “Brough, Baptists, and Bombast: The Election of 1928.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 32 (Summer 1973): 120–131.

Moore, Randy. Evolution in the Courtroom: A Reference Guide. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2002.

Guy Lancaster
Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture

Last Updated 4/22/2014

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