Almost 100 years ago, newspapers from all around the country captivated the public with their reporting of the most infamous trial of the century, involving a high school science teacher and Christian fundamental values. The case, the State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, took place in 1925 and pitted some of the best legal orators of the time against each other: Clarence S. Darrow, a leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and defender of individual rights against three-time Democratic presidential candidate, former Nebraska Congressman, and U.S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan.
Although the outcome of the case was fairly predictable, with Scopes being found in violation of the state’s prohibition on teaching evolution, known as the Butler Act (which was repealed on May 17, 1967), and fined the minimum amount prescribed by law ($100) the case has served as a touchstone in the ongoing debate regarding the separation of church and state and the role of religion in schools and other public places.
The Butler Act
A rise in the teaching of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species in Tennessee schools caused Christian fundamentalists to become concerned that children were being taught to not believe in God. This concern led the Tennessee legislature to pass the Butler Act, which was signed into law by then-governor Austin Peay on March 21, 1925. The law’s author was a state representative named John Butler, who represented the conservative rural district of Macon County.
The Butler Act, only two pages long (197 words), was simple in that it forbade the teaching of evolution at any level of schooling (i.e. university, normal, public, etc.) that received state funding. Anyone found in violation of the law would be fined no less than $100 and no more than $500. Governor Peay felt that the law would be rarely, if ever, enforced and signed it to mollify his conservative constituents.
ACLU Challenge to the Law
The ACLU, a leading organization in the defense of individual rights and freedoms in the country, sought to challenge the law after it was enacted. The organization needed look no further than a part-time substitute science teacher named John Scopes. Accepting an offer by the organization to cover his defense, Scopes was arrested on May 7, 1925, for violation of the Butler Act. In challenging the law the ACLU hoped to expose the hypocrisy of states that substituted education with religious doctrine. Even though the ACLU was unable to argue the case further before the U.S. Supreme Court (the verdict was overturned in 1927 by the Tennessee Supreme Court), the case was used to stop further attempts to enforce religious doctrine in the classroom.
The Scopes Monkey Trial and its Outcome
The trial began on July 10, 1925, and concluded on July 21, 1925, with Scopes being found guilty. Judge John T. Raulston of the 18th Tennessee District heard the arguments. A famous exchange between Darrow and Bryan on day seven of the trial saw Bryan accepting an unusually rare role from that of lead prosecuting attorney to witness for the prosecution. The exchange produced one of the trial’s most memorable moments and cast doubt on fundamentalism’s literal interpretation of the Bible and the role of science to question and put forth alternate theories of life. Darrow’s style of questioning, thought to be mocking the older Bryan (who died five days after the verdict was handed down), helped bring to light the need for questioning, science, and reason and cast Bryan as out of touch and uninformed.
Gilbert Madigan writes on a variety of complex legal topics such as Constitutional Law, Legal History, Consumer Rights, Evidence Law, Criminal Law and others as well.