1925 May 5

John T. Scopes Charged with Violating Tennessee Anti-Evolution Law


Tennessee passed a law on March 21, 1925, outlawing the teaching of evolution in state public schools. In a prearranged event, biology teacher John T. Scopes was arrested in Dayton, Tennessee, on this day for teaching evolution in his classes. The arrest set in motion the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, which began July 10, 1925. The trial became a circus, drawing reporters from around the country and from around the world. To a certain extent the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the trial obscured the important issues in the case, involving the freedom to teach and the role of religion in American public life.

Scopes was convicted of violating the anti-evolution law, but the conviction was overturned on appeal because the judge erred in imposing the sentence (January 15, 1927). Embarrassed Tennessee officials decided not to appeal, and thus there was never a Supreme Court test of the civil liberties issues involved in the case. Decades later, on November 12, 1968, the Supreme Court declared a similar Arkansas law unconstitutional in Epperson v. Arkansas.

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.

For all practical purposes, the case never ended, and controversies over both the freedom to teach and the place of religion in public schools continue today. Religious conservatives have tried without success to get religion into the public schools through moments of silence (June 4, 1985), the “balanced treatment” of evolution and creationism (June 19, 1987), and the teaching of “intelligent design.”

The Butler Act: “It shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”

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

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

And more about the trialhttp://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/scopes.htm

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