Ninth article in Secular Woman's Women's History Month series.
by Jamie Bougher
In 1928, the state of Arkansas passed a law. It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad law. Or, well, at least it was a pretty discriminatory, anti-science law. Same thing. The law made it
…unlawful for any teacher or other instructor in any university, college, normal, public school or other institution of the state which is supported in whole or in part from public funds derived by state or local taxation to teach the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals, and also that it be unlawful for any teacher, textbook commission, or other authority exercising the power to select textbooks for above-mentioned institutions to adopt or use in any such institution a textbook that teaches the doctrine or theory that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animal. (Alvin W. Johnson, Frank H. Yost. Separation of Church and State in the United States. Univ Of Minnesota Press; Minnesota Archive Editions edition. ISBN 978-0-8166-5965-4, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epperson_v._Arkansas).
Pretty blatant, huh? Tragically, the law stayed firmly in place for almost forty years. In 1965, Little Rock Central High School adopted a new textbook that contained a chapter about Darwin and evolution, and then required that the chapter be taught. The Little Rock biology teachers found themselves in a difficult situation. Follow state law, refuse to teach the chapter, get fired for violating the district’s curriculum. Follow the curriculum, teach the chapter, get fired for violating state law. Not a pretty picture. Lucky for all of us, the Arkansas Education Association (or AEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association) was totally on the case.
One of the biology teachers who was going to be required to teach the EVILUTION chapter was a classy young lady by the name of Susan Epperson. The AEA asked her to be the plaintiff in the case they were going to bring against the state law. In a December 2010 ACLU interview with Epperson, she explains:
The AEA needed a biology teacher to be their plaintiff. […] At the time, in 1965, there were civil rights struggles going on in the South. One of the complaints was outside agitators. The AEA didn't want the plaintiff to be a teacher from out of state and I was from a small town about 90 miles from Little Rock. I think they were also looking for a Christian believer. Because some people equate believing in evolution with being an atheist, the AEA wanted to demonstrate that one can believe in God and also believe all the scientific evidence for evolution.
Ah ha, strategery! And, actually fairly effective. The case was first brought to the Chancery Court in Pulaski County. And they won rather handily. The court held that the law was unconstitutional. Their argument said the law “violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which protects citizens from state interference with freedom of speech and thought as contained in the constitution's First Amendment” (quote from wiki page). I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not entirely clear on why they couldn’t call it a violation of the First Amendment directly. But hey, a win’s a win! Or…well, it’s a win until the state appeals to the Arkansas Supreme Court and has the Chancey Court’s ruling struck down (they argued that “the statute was a valid exercise of the state’s power to specify the curriculum in its public schools”). Bummer. Predictably, the AEA appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, who decided that the Arkansas Supreme Court was quite wrong, and that the Arkansas law was clearly designed to protect a particular religion. My favorite quote:
[T]he state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them.
So the side of good wins and all is well. Epperson was actually not directly involved in the appeal process. She attended the U.S. Supreme Court hearing as an anonymous audience member. Since that time, Epperson has become a fierce advocate for evolution, reason, and science. She harnesses her faith (she is still a Presbyterian) and her credentials (Epperson is an instructor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, with multiple degrees in biology) to help fight against the too-common belief on the part of the religious that evolution must be rejected outright. The secular movement is lucky to have inspiring women like Susan Epperson on its side.