Summary of Epperson v. Arkansas
Citation: 393 U.S. 97 (1968)
Relevant Facts: In 1928, Arkansas passed a statute as a result of a successful ballot initiative that outlawed the teaching of evolution in public schools and universities. Some forty years later, Susan Epperson was employed as a biology teacher in Little Rock, Arkansas. When the administration at her school adopted a new textbook for the upcoming school year, one that included a chapter on evolution, Ms. Epperson was faced with a difficult choice. She could either teach the course as directed by the administration, subjecting her to punishment for violation of the statute in question, or comply with the law and place her job in jeopardy. She chose a third option, and brought suit challenging the constitutionality of the law and seeking to enjoin its enforcement. At trial, the court determined that the law violated the Fourteenth Amendment by restricting free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment, finding it particularly objectionable that the statute impeded the quest for knowledge. The Arkansas Supreme Court reversed, concluding that the State controlled curriculum in public schools.
Issue: Do state laws prohibiting the teaching of scientific theories, on the basis of religious objections, violate the First Amendment?
Holding: Yes, states may not prohibit teaching scientific theories unless they have a valid, secular purpose for doing so. While states do have control over school curriculum, they are not free to exercise such control in a way that runs afoul of First Amendment guarantees.
Reasoning: Justice Fortas, writing for the Court, first addressed the raised issue of vagueness. The parties disagreed concerning whether the statute prohibited mentioning the theory of evolution, or whether it merely prevented teaching that the theory was true. The Court determined that the inquiry was unnecessary, as the statute was unconstitutional under either interpretation. After a brief recitation of the history of Establishment Clause jurisprudence, Justice Fortas explained that the instant case was a simple one. State action must but in furtherance of a secular purpose in order to pass Constitutional muster. When, as here, the statute seeks to advance the beliefs of a particular sect by prohibiting teachings they find objectionable, it violates that command. While states may properly oversee the curriculum of their public schools, they must do so in a way that does not violate the rights of students and teachers. In this case, there was no possible secular justification for the statute, passed and codified solely to protect the religious view that students ought not to be exposed to theories contrary to the book of Genesis in the Bible. Accordingly, the statute violated the Establishment Clause.
Dissent: While there were no dissenting opinions, Justices Black, Harlan, and Stewart each wrote concurring opinions. Justice Black, while concurring in the result, preferred to more carefully scrutinize the issue of standing, and on the merits would have struck down the law for vagueness. He also argued that valid secular purposes could have existed, that the theory could have been considered anti-religious, and that teachers in public schools do not have the same academic freedom they would in private institutions. Justice Harlan, in his concurring opinion, agreed that the statute violated the Establishment Clause, but thought that the Court should have passed without comment on both free speech and vagueness. Justice Stewart would have also overturned the statute on vagueness grounds, arguing that while states may properly determine curriculum, they may not prohibit even the bare mention of competing ideas not contained within the proscribed course of study.
Conclusion: States must adopt school curricula with valid, secular purposes in mind. A State may not prohibit the teaching of a theory merely because it conflicts with the established tenets of a particular faith.