In the fall of 1965, Susan Epperson was a newlywed and a newly minted biology teacher at Little Rock's Central High School, when a family friend approached her after school.
Would she consider being the lead plaintiff in a challenge to Arkansas' law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools? Would she be willing to be the next John Scopes?
"At first, I thought they were going around asking all the biology teachers," Epperson said 45 years later in a 2010 interview. "My stomach was churning."
It should have been. When Epperson said "yes," she had no idea she would become the face of a landmark Supreme Court case, Epperson v. Arkansas, decided 50 years ago this month. The Epperson ruling would effectively end the teaching of biblical creationism in public schools and, ultimately, spawn its offspring--intelligent design and "teach the controversy" laws.
"The Epperson decision was literally pivotal," said Ann Reid, executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a California-based group that defends the teaching of evolution in public schools. "By putting a long-overdue end to the Scopes-era bans on the teaching of evolution, it empowered science teachers across the country to teach evolution more accurately, more honestly and more confidently."
And Epperson further cemented the wall between church and state.
"[T]he law must be stricken because of its conflict with the constitutional prohibition of state laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," Justice Abe Fortas wrote in the court's 1968 opinion. "The overriding fact is that Arkansas' law selects from the body of knowledge a particular segment which it proscribes for the sole reason that it is deemed to conflict with a particular religious doctrine; that is, with a particular interpretation of the Book of Genesis by a particular religious group."
The Arkansas statute Epperson challenged became law in 1928.
"It shall be unlawful for any [public school] teacher ... to teach the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals", the law stated. "[A]nd also it shall be unlawful for any teacher ... to adopt or use in any such institution a textbook that teaches the doctrine or theory that mankind descended or ascended from a lower order of animals."
Violating the law would bring a $500 fine at a time when teachers in most states earned less than $2,000 a year.
The law was a direct result of the Scopes trial three years earlier. In that case, John Scopes, a high school science teacher in Dayton, Tenn., challenged the state's Butler Act, an anti-evolution law, by teaching Darwin's theory that human beings evolved over time from a common ancestor shared with modern apes.
The "Scopes monkey trial," as the era's tabloid-style journalists dubbed the case, both captivated and polarized the country. On one side sat those who saw no friction between traditional religion and modern evolution...