Reconciling Faith and Evolution in the Classroom: A Conversation with Susan Epperson, 42 Years Later

December 9, 2010

Susan Epperson discussing a legal brief with lawyer Eugene Warren, 1966 Susan Epperson with John Scopes at January 1969 lunch meeting, a couple of months after the Supreme Court decision Susan Epperson stands next to her image at ACLU 90th exhibit, September 15, 2010, Ellis Island

It's five years this month since the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District decision, which ruled that "intelligent design" is a religious idea that may not be taught in public school science classes. And just this week, Louisiana's State Education Board approved new biology textbooks for Louisiana high school students, over the objections of those who say the new books put too much credence on Darwin's Theory of Evolution.

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We sat down with Susan Epperson, plaintiff in Epperson v. Arkansas — a case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968 that challenged the constitutionality of a state to outlaw the teaching of evolution in public school — to get her thoughts on her experience. In her case, with a 9-0 vote, the Court overturned an Arkansas law that prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools on the ground that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged reversal of the judgment of the Supreme Court of Arkansas.

Susan Epperson now teaches introductory chemistry and non-majors biology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

ACLU: It's been 42 years since your Supreme Court decision, Epperson v. Arkansas, which said that the government cannot favor one particular religion or religious theory over another. It was a pretty bold move for a young biology teacher like you to get involved in a case like this.
SE: I was 24 when I first got involved in fall of 1965. The thought has occurred to me over the years that when we're young we may be more willing to get involved in controversial things. If I were met now with the same situation and the Arkansas Education Association [AEA] asked for my help, I would do it — but would be more of aware of possible consequences.
 
ACLU: Why do you think they chose you to be the plaintiff in the case?
SE: The AEA needed a biology teacher to be their plaintiff. They had decided to challenge the constitutionality of an Arkansas law that had been on the books since 1928 — it prohibited teachers in public or state-supported schools from teaching, or using textbooks that teach, human evolution. 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.
 
ACLU: So you believe you were chosen because you were a Christian?
SE: Well, at first I thought they were going around and asking all the biology teachers! When they approached me after school one day, my stomach was churning. But yes, I think I may have been selected because I was — and still am — a believer, a practicing Presbyterian. Also, at the time, the executive secretary of the AEA knew that both of my parents were believers. My dad was a biology teacher in a small college in Arkansas and an elder in the church.
 
ACLU: That must've been pretty heady for a 24-year old young woman from Arkansas. What was your family's reaction?
SE: My parents and my husband Jon were very supportive. I had just gotten married that summer and when I got home that evening, I told Jon I'd been asked to be a plaintiff in a challenge case. He was so excited and said, "Do it, do it!" I wasn't surprised by his reaction because he's always been encouraging. He is a math teacher and loves science. He's religious too. His dad was a Presbyterian minister.
 
ACLU: You got a lot of publicity at the time of the case and you've said that some of the letters you received were negative.
SE: When my case hit the newspapers, people assumed I was an atheist. The fact is, I got more positive letters than negative ones — letters that were very supportive, from ministers, other walks of life. I also got letters that said things such as: "Why don't you crawl into a den of apes and monkeys if you want to claim them as your sires. Pity the poor monkeys." And "Judging from your looks, you have good reason for believing that the human race began with apes."
 
ACLU: And how devastating was it to receive those?
SE: Not devastating at all. Jon and I considered them astute observations on comparative anatomy.
 
ACLU: I heard you had lunch with John Scopes of the 1925 "Monkey" trial.
SE: Yes, in January of 1969, a mutual friend, Jerry Tompkins, who is a Presbyterian minister and had written a book about the Scopes trial, arranged for my husband, father and me to have lunch with Mr. and Mrs. Scopes at a Holiday Inn in Shreveport where they lived. I had not heard from Mr. Scopes throughout our case but when we met, he told me he had offers to pay his way to our first trial in Little Rock. When our case hit newspapers, he got more mail than I did! People told him the same sorts of things they told me — that he was going to hell. He especially wanted me to know that he fully supported our effort against the Arkansas law. He had intentionally stayed away from our hearing because he knew reporters would ask him questions and he didn't want us to have to deal with any unwanted publicity about his trial.
 
ACLU: Do you have a special way to speak to fellow Christians about evolution?
SE: When I give my talk, I say that this does not have to be a dichotomy. There are some fundamentalists who say yes, this is a dichotomy; that is, you can't be a Christian and believe in evolution. But it boils down to how you interpret scripture. One of the things I say is, I don't look at Genesis as a book of science. Religious college students sometimes ask if they can be a believer and major in biology. They don't need to make that choice.
 
ACLU: So you're saying that evolution and faith are not irreconcilable?
SE: Definitely! There are many people of faith who also accept the abundance of evidence in support of the evolution of life on this planet.
 
ACLU: I'd like to ask you about the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District decision, which is five years old this month. Basically, the Dover Area School Board wanted to require science teachers to tell students evolution is just a theory. But technically, it is a theory, right?
SE: Natural selection, Darwin's proposed mechanism for evolutionary change is a theory. However, scientists use this word "theory" differently from how it is used in everyday parlance. In common usage, the words "theory" and "hypothesis" are almost interchangeable. But in science, they're very different. "Theory" is a word that anti-evolutionists like to use to try to make evolution or natural selection sound flimsy and unsupported. In science, a theory is usually a working model that explains a vast amount of facts, obtained through research and observation. So a scientific theory allows us to make predictions, like, for example, that fossils found in older rock layers would show life forms that are quite different from those we see around us now. And those found in more recent strata might look a lot like currently living creatures. And that's exactly what is found.
 
ACLU: This week the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to approve a standard biology text, which conservative critics had attacked for failing to teach the "controversy" about evolution. Does that mean the threat of intelligent decision and creationism in our public schools is waning?
SE: Not really. As long as people think of evolution as a threat to God, there will be efforts to include God whenever evolution is taught. The only way to meet these challenges to science education is to teach the evidence and try to help people see that science and faith are not contradictory. Not an easy task.
 
ACLU: When students take your classes, do they know they're being taught biology by a former plaintiff in an important Supreme Court case?
SE: I taught from a textbook a couple of years ago where the author wrote about my case and said that the teacher was arrested for teaching evolution. So I did mention it to the class that year and I also contacted the publisher. But I'm not sure those students actually believed that I was the young teacher in the book. For most of my students, 1965 is in the far distant past!
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