1925 July 21

You Can’t Teach That! Scopes Convicted of Teaching Evolution


John T. Scopes was convicted on this day of violating a Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of evolution. The trial, usually referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial, began in Dayton, Tennessee on July 10, 1925, and is one of the most famous trials in American history. The judge, however, made a mistake in sentencing Scopes, and this became the basis for the conviction being overturned, on January 15, 1927, by the Tennessee Supreme Court. There was no appeal and Scopes was not retried, so there was never a Supreme Court test of the issues raised in the case — the freedom to teach, the separation of church and state.

Forty-three years later, in Epperson v. Arkansas, on November 12, 1968, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional an Arkansas law similar to the 1925 Tennessee law.

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

Learn more about the science and religion: http://ncse.com/

And more about the famous trial: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/scopes.htm

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