One in a series of interviews with principals involved in First Amendment-related U.S. Supreme Court cases (see below).
In the 1920s, a 24-year-old, red-headed biology teacher named John Scopes was fined and prosecuted for teaching evolution. The celebrated “Scopes monkey trial” took place in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925. The Scopes trial ended without a court declaration that the Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional.
Four decades later, it took the case of another 24-year-old, red-headed biology teacher to have a court finally strike down a state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in science classes. That case was one filed by teacher Susan Epperson, Epperson v. Arkansas. “It is really ironic that we were both 24 years old and both had red hair,” Epperson says.
In the 1960s, it was illegal under Arkansas law to teach evolution in the public schools. The Scopes-era statute, passed by the state Legislature in 1928, was titled “Doctrine of ascent or descent of man from lower order of animals prohibited” and barred any teacher at any school receiving government funding from teaching evolution. Even though the law was not enforced, the potential existed that a teacher who defied the ban could be slapped with a misdemeanor and subject to dismissal under the law.
The Arkansas Education Association wanted to strike this law from the books. What the group needed was a plaintiff willing to have his or her name plastered on the legal documents. In 1965, Virginia Minor, a teacher active in the AEA, approached Susan Epperson, a 10th-grade biology teacher at Little Rock Central High School. Little Rock Central was the same school made famous less than a decade earlier when President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in federal troops to ensure the school's desegregation over the obdurate, segregationist stance of Gov. Orval Faubus.
Because of its draconian language, Epperson said, the Arkansas law felt "like a threat, and was enough in many places to inhibit teachers from even talking about evolution in their classes."
"As for places where the law may have been ignored, teachers were also at risk, but worse than that would be the message sent to students that if you don’t like a law, then just disregard it and disobey it," she said. "I think the AEA effort to face it head-on and work to remove it was a better example for young people.”
Epperson speculated that there were several reasons she was approached by the AEA. “Arkansas was my home, I was a Christian, and my husband being in the military I would not be considered a communist,” she said. Also, her father was a well-respected college professor who taught biology.
Epperson had some apprehensions about putting her name on the lawsuit. “It was pretty scary to contemplate the possible negative attitudes,” she said. “I knew it was a very controversial topic, and I was pretty sure there would be at least some media coverage. … It gave me a very nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach.”
She received some hateful letters: One letter-writer called her a monkey, some questioned her belief in God, and still others told her she was going to Hell.
Unlike the response she received from some in the community, Epperson said she received little opposition from those in her school. One educator confronted her in the teacher's lounge over her participation in the lawsuit, but she said that was an isolated incident.
“The principal at Central was super," Epperson said. "He told me: ‘This is something that has needed doing for a long time. I congratulate you for getting involved!’ He also told me to see him if I had any trouble with anyone in the building.”
Epperson went forward with the suit that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. She prevailed before an Arkansas chancery court, which held the statute unconstitutional. However, the state Supreme Court reversed in a two-sentence opinion. The court wrote that the law “is a valid exercise of the state’s power to specify the curriculum in its public schools.”
On Nov. 12, 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Arkansas ruling. Justice Abe Fortas wrote for the Court that the law violated the First Amendment.
“The State’s undoubted right to prescribe the curriculum for its public schools does not carry with it the right to prohibit, on pain of criminal penalty, the teaching of a scientific theory or doctrine where that prohibition is based upon reasons that violate the First Amendment,” Fortas wrote.
The decision likely assumed special significance for Fortas, according to scholar Edward J. Larson, a professor of law and history at the University of Georgia. In his book Summer For The Gods, he writes: “The resolve of Fortas to hear the appeal probably sprang from his special interest in the Scopes case, which he experienced almost firsthand as a Tennessee public high school student during the mid-1920’s.”
Fortas wrote that the Arkansas law violated the establishment clause, the section of the First Amendment erecting a degree of separation between church and state. He focused on the religious purpose of the law: “It is clear that fundamentalist sectarian conviction was and is the law’s reason for existence.”
Larson writes in his book: “Largely as a result of the Epperson decision, having a ‘secular legislative purpose’ became a separate test for establishment clause violations.”
First Amendment expert Robert O’Neil, founder of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression in Charlottesville, Va., said the Court’s decision in Epperson was important because it was a “precursor to later decisions involving scientific creationism and signaled the Court’s intolerance at attempts to prohibit the teaching of evolution.”
“It certainly served notice of the Court’s lack of any inclination to condone any restrictions on the teaching of evolution,” O’Neil said.
The evolution controversy, of course, did not die after the Epperson decision. In the 1970s and 1980s, the controversy over “scientific creationism” took center stage when Arkansas and Louisiana passed laws mandating the teaching of creationism alongside evolution. A federal district court invalidated the Arkansas law in the 1982 decision McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the Louisiana law that required “balanced treatment” for the teaching of evolution and creation-science in Edwards v. Aguillard.
Epperson has stayed abreast of developments in this contentious arena. Commenting on the Arkansas and Louisiana laws, Epperson said: “Of course, I thought these efforts were a threat to good science education in Arkansas, and also in Louisiana, so was dismayed to hear about them. I was happy that Arkansas Judge William Overton wrote such a definitive decision, concluding that creationism was not science. I’m also very glad for the Supreme Court decision in Aguillard.”
Even after these decisions, the evolution controversy continues to simmer in public schools with the placement of “evolution is only a theory” stickers in textbooks and disputes over the teaching of intelligent design.
Epperson pays particular attention to the “intelligent design” movement, which is gaining momentum in parts of the country.
“I do think I.D. is another effort to bring God as creator into science classes, but now under the guise of an ‘intelligent designer’ so that the word ‘God’ is not used,” she said. “Again, this is not helpful for students’ understanding of what science is all about. The scientist doesn’t throw up his hands and say, ‘I just can’t figure it out, so God did it!’ I personally believe that God certainly did it all, but as a scientist, one doesn’t stop there, one continues to search and research to find natural explanations.”
She says she worries about the anti-evolution fervor that still grips parts of the country. “I think there are many people who believe evolution is some sort of atheistic, godless philosophy which is a genuine threat to their belief in God,” Epperson said. “Of course, people are going to be emotional and fight such a philosophy.”
She says she wishes that people would not equate interest in evolution with atheism or lack of belief in God: “It would be so helpful if people could come to see that they can believe evolution occurred and also believe in God as creator. Then they could study science with open minds and excitement and still keep their faith in God.”
A place in legal history
For the better part of two decades, Epperson has taught at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs or a local community college. She teaches a prepatory chemistry class and plans to teach a biology class this fall.
She is pleased to be associated with a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision but also tries to deflect attention from herself: “I am grateful to the people who were running the show like attorney Eugene Warren,” she said. “They had the legal expertise and it was pleasure being a part of it.”
“If the part I played has helped any at all toward helping students learn good science, I am most gratified,” Epperson says. “When I see the continued efforts to bring religious ideas into science classes, I wonder if we really accomplished much. It seems to be an endless battle.”
Susan Epperson’s name will forever be remembered for her role in one such historic battle.