William Ray Overton (1939–1987)

William Ray Overton was a U.S. district judge from 1979 to 1987 and is best known for his ruling in the McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education court case, which held the teaching of creationism to be unconstitutional.

William Ray Overton was born on September 19, 1939, in Hot Spring County to Elizabeth Ford and Odis Ray Overton, a mine foreman at Magnet Cove (Hot Spring County). His mother, who taught several subjects in Hot Spring County’s public school system, was known for her skill with the English language; Overton joked that he got some learning in language by osmosis.

Overton was an only child. His father died in 1957 when Overton was sixteen years old. In 1963, his mother married James Kimzey, who was superintendent of schools at Magnet Cove. Kimzey was later county judge of Hot Spring County by appointment of Governor David Pryor.

Overton attended high school in Malvern (Hot Spring County), where he was an excellent student and a three-sport letterman (football, basketball, and baseball). He entered the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) in the fall of 1957. In the spring of 1958, he pitched for the Arkansas Razorbacks, but a shoulder injury ended the southpaw’s days on the mound.

Overton received his undergraduate degree from UA in 1962 and graduated from the University of Arkansas School of Law in the spring of 1964. During law school, he served as editor of the law review, an honor reflecting his scholarship, writing ability, and the confidence of the faculty.

On January 25, 1964, he married Susan Linebarger. They had two sons.

After law school, Overton joined the Wright, Lindsey, and Jennings law firm in Little Rock (Pulaski County), becoming a full partner after two years. From 1964 until he became a judge, his law practice generally involved representing defendants in civil litigation (car wreck cases, product liability cases, and so on). He was considered a top-flight trial lawyer and legal scholar. His legal papers were highly regarded in the profession but attracted little public attention.

As a U.S. district judge, Overton was noted for his ability to get to the heart of a matter, and he insisted that lawyers do so. His crisp written opinions were rendered quickly, and he handed down several important opinions during his short tenure..

Overton is best known for his decision in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, which attracted worldwide attention. The plaintiffs in McLean challenged the constitutionality of a state law, Act 590 of 1981, which required the Arkansas public schools to have a “balanced treatment” between creation science and evolution. The challenge came from a biology teacher, clergy of several denominations, and organizations including the American Jewish Congress, the Arkansas Education Association, and the National Association of Biology Teachers.

The constitutional issue centered on the First Amendment’s prohibition of the establishment of religion. Overton found that the statute violated this clause and stated that “it is in the area of the public schools that these values must be guarded most vigilantly.” He traced the origins of the act to fundamentalist Christian organizations that “consider the introduction of creation science into the public schools part of their ministry.” The evidence for creation science, witnesses had testified, was to be found solely in the Book of Genesis; the dual approach required by the statute “has no scientific factual basis or legitimate educational purpose,” Overton stated. Defining science by five essential characteristics, he concluded that “creation science…is simply not science.” Therefore “the evidence is overwhelming that both the purpose and the effect of Act 590 is the advancement of religion in the public schools.” Pointing out that “evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology,” he concluded, “No group, no matter how large or small, may use the organs of government, of which the public schools are the most conspicuous and influential, to foist its religious beliefs on others.”

After this opinion was filed, Overton received thousands of letters, some praising him for protecting religious freedom and others accusing him of doing “the devil’s work.” The world scientific community applauded the decision. Science, the leading journal of American professional science, published the decision verbatim. A few years later, Stephen J. Gould, zoologist and paleontologist, wrote in Natural History, “Judge Overton’s brilliant and beautifully crafted decision is the finest legal document ever written about this question—far surpassing anything that the Scopes trial generated….Judge Overton’s definitions of science are so cogent and clearly expressed that we can use his words as a model for our own proceedings.” The economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote to Overton: “Years ago I learned that a judge…should never be thanked for a decision. Justice, I was told, is what is normal and right. But no rule prevents me from saying how literate, interesting and informative I found your ‘Memorandum Opinion.’”

Another case that attracted much attention was Donovan v. Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation. The Alamos operated several commercial enterprises staffed primarily by young followers of a quasi-religious group who were compensated only by free room and board. Overton held that the Alamos were subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act and were required to pay their employees minimum wage. In another decision showing his concern with the separation of church and state, Arkansas Day Care Ass’n, Inc. v. Clinton, he held unconstitutional a statute that exempted religious child-care facilities from state licensing standards.

Overton died of cancer on July 14, 1987, and was buried in Shadowlawn Cemetery in Malvern. He had worked regularly until just before his death. The Arkansas Bar Foundation soon established a scholarship in Judge Overton’s name.

For additional information:
“Judge Overton Dies; Was Noted for ’82 Trial.” Arkansas Gazette. July 15, 1987, pp. 1A, 9A.

Wells, George. “Judge Overton Remembered for His Love of the Constitution.” Arkansas Gazette. July 17, 1987, p. 3A.

William R. Overton Papers. Center for Arkansas History and Culture. University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Little Rock, Arkansas.

William R. Wilson Jr.
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 09/24/2012

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