1925 March 21

Tennessee Governor Signs Anti-Evolution Law – Sets Stage for Famous Scopes Case


The Governor of Tennessee on this day signed the Butler Bill outlawing teaching of evolution in the state’s public schools. The law led to the arrest of John T. Scopes for teaching evolution in Dayton, Tennessee. The resulting Scopes Monkey Trial, which began on July 10, 1925, became one of the most famous trials in American history. The law and the trial launched a decades-long fight over both the freedom to teach and the separation of church and state. Scopes was found guilty on July 21, 1925, but his conviction was overturned on a technicality on January 15, 1927, and there was no appeal testing the underlying constitutional issues in the case.

At the time of the Scopes trial, anti-evolution laws existed in Minnesota, North Dakota, Missouri, Alabama, and Arkansas. (A proposed law in West Virginia had been defeated.) Forty years later, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a similar Arkansas anti-evolution law in Epperson v. Arkansas, on November 12, 1968.

Inherit the Wind is a play and a movie based on the famous Scopes trial (see April 21, 1955). While many parts of the plot are inventions and are overly melodramatic, much of the cross-examination of the Bryan character (played by Frederick March) by the Darrow character (played by Spencer Tracy is taken directly from the trial transcript and is riveting

The issues in the Scopes case never died. Religious conservatives have over the years tried many strategies for getting religion into the public schools. See “moment of silence” laws (June 4, 1985); the “balanced treatment” of evolution and creation science (June 19, 1987); and the teaching of “intelligent design” (December 20, 2005). All have been unsuccessful.

Learn more: Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (1997)

Read the play: Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Inherit the Wind (1955)

Learn more about science education and evolution: http://ncse.com/evolution

Learn about the movie: Inherit the Wind (1960): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053946/

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