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Law School Case Brief

Epperson v. Arkansas - 393 U.S. 97, 89 S. Ct. 266 (1968)

Rule:

The First Amendment does not permit a state to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma.

While study of religions and of the Bible from a literary and historic viewpoint, presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, need not collide with the First Amendment's prohibition, a state may not adopt programs or practices in its public schools or colleges which aid or oppose any religion. This prohibition is absolute. It forbids alike the preference of a religious doctrine or the prohibition of theory that is deemed antagonistic to a particular dogma. The test is: What are the purpose and the primary effect of the enactment? If either is the advancement or inhibition of religion then the enactment exceeds the scope of legislative power as circumscribed by the Constitution.

Facts:

Susan Epperson, an Arkansas public school teacher, brought the present action for declaratory and injunctive relief challenging the constitutionality of Arkansas' "anti-evolution" statute. That statute made it unlawful for a teacher in any state-supported school or university to teach or to use a textbook that would teach the Darwinian theory of evolution. H. H. Blanchard, a parent of children attending the public schools, intervened in support of the action.The State Chancery Court held the statute an abridgment of free speech violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments. However, on appeal, the Supreme Court of Arkansas reversed, sustaining the statute as an exercise of the state's power to specify the curriculum in public schools, while expressing no opinion on whether the statute prohibited any explanation of the theory of evolution or merely prohibited teaching that the theory was true. Epperson appealed the state supreme court’s decision to the United States Supreme Court.

Issue:

Did Arkansas’ “anti-evolution” statute violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The United States Supreme Court held that the statute was contrary to the mandate of the First, and in violation of the Fourteenth, Amendment, as conflicting with the constitutional prohibition of state laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. According to the Court, the statute could not stand because the State of Arkansas' right to prescribe the curriculum for its public schools did not carry with it the right to prohibit, on pain of criminal penalty, the teaching of a scientific theory or doctrine where the prohibition was based upon reasons that violated the First Amendment. There was no doubt that Arkansas had sought to prevent its teachers from discussing the theory of evolution. Thus, the Arkansas law could not be defended as an act of religious neutrality because the State did not seek to excise form the curricula of its schools and universities all discussion of the origin of man. The law attempted to blot out a particular theory because of its supposed conflict with the Biblical account.

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