Epperson v. Arkansas

Epperson v. Arkansas

Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968), was a United States Supreme Court case that invalidated an Arkansas statute that prohibited the teaching of evolution in the public schools. The Court held that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits a state from requiring, in the words of the majority opinion, "that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma." The Supreme Court declared the Arkansas statute unconstitutional because it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Mandates that creation science be taught would not be ruled unconstitutional by the Court until the 1987 case Edwards v. Aguillard.


In 1928, Arkansas adopted a law which prohibited any public school or university from teaching "the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals" and from using any textbook which taught the same. A similar Tennessee law had been upheld in 1925, in the internationally-publicized Scopes Monkey Trial. During the forty years the Arkansas law was in effect, no one was ever prosecuted for violating it.

In the mid-1960s, Forrest Rozzell, the secretary of the Arkansas Education Association, sought someone to challenge the law as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. Rather than have someone break the law as in the Scopes case, the AEA's lawyers instead tried to find a person to request a declaratory judgment on the law. Susan Epperson, a Little Rock high school teacher and theistic evolutionist, agreed to be that person.

Original trial and appeal

The AEA's lawyers tried to keep it in judge's chambers, to keep out of the media spotlight but the Arkansas Attorney General disagreed and a trial was arranged. Epperson testified but the trial only lasted a day with Judge Reed finding the law unconstitutional.

The Attorney-General appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court who gave a very short ruling that the law was "a valid exercise of the state's power to specify the curriculum in its public schools" adding "The court expresses no opinion on the question whether the Act prohibits any explanation of the theory of evolution or merely prohibits teaching that the theory is true; the answer not being necessary to a decision in the case, and the issue not having been raised." but this issue of ambiguity was important.

Supreme Court Case

The AEA appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, which concluded:
Arkansas's law cannot be defended as an act of religious neutrality. Arkansas did not seek to excise from the curricula of its schools and universities all discussion of the origin of man. The law's effort was confined to an attempt to blot out a particular theory because of its supposed conflict with the Biblical account, literally read. Plainly, the law is contrary to the mandate of the First, and in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.


The decision in Epperson was the first in a series of legal setbacks to creationists wanting to promote religion through America's public schools. These include:

Creationism in Arkansas, and "equal time"/"balance treatment" acts

Arkansas's equal time act was struck down in McLean v. Arkansas but it wasn't until 1987 that the Supreme Court ruled the teaching of "creation science" illegal in Edwards v. Aguillard.

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