July 10, 1925 – Beginning of the Scopes “Monkey Trial” on the Teaching of Evolution

On May 18, 1967, the governor of Tennessee signed the repeal of a law that had remained in force for 42 years. The Butler Act, passed in 1925, was a Tennessee law prohibiting public school teachers from denying the Biblical account of mankind’s origin. It also prevented the teaching of the evolution of man from what it referred to as lower orders of animals in place of the Biblical account.

According to the ACLU:

The Butler Act set off alarm bells around the country. The ACLU responded immediately with an offer to defend any teacher prosecuted under the law.”

John Scopes was a 24-year-old popular high school science teacher who agreed to be the focus of a test case to challenge the law. He was charged with teaching the theory of evolution and arrested on May 7, 1925. Clarence Darrow, a nationally renowned criminal defense attorney and an avowed agnostic in religious matters,
led the defense along with ACLU General Counsel Arthur Garfield Hays. Per the ACLU:

They sought to demonstrate that the Tennessee law was unconstitutional because it made the Bible, a religious document, the standard of truth in a public institution.”

The prosecution team was led by William Jennings Bryan, a former Secretary of State, presidential candidate, and the most famous fundamentalist Christian spokesperson in the country. As NPR reported:

He agreed to take the case because he believed that evolution theory led to dangerous social movements. And he believed the Bible should be interpreted literally.”

Clarence Darrow, left, and William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925. Credit Associated Press

Bryan had a simple and seemingly self-evident strategy: proving John Scopes was guilty of violating Tennessee law.

The Scopes trial, also called “the Monkey Trial,” turned out to be a sensation; approximately 1000 people and more than 100 newspapers packed the courtroom daily. The judge ordered the trial moved to the courthouse lawn, fearing that the weight of the crowd inside was in danger of collapsing the floor. The trial was the first ever to be broadcasted live on the radio and the attention led to a circus-like atmosphere. As the New York Times observed on the 2017 occasion of the erection of a statue of Clarence Darrow in Dayton:

During the trial, local merchants, hoping to cash in on the trial publicity, festooned their shops with apes and monkeys, and a local drugstore hawked ‘simian’ sodas, according to ‘Summer for the Gods,’ the historian Edward J. Larson’s 1997 account of the trial. Today, downtown Dayton features the two-year-old Monkey Town Brewing Company, a 7,000-square-foot brewpub that offers a double-dry-hopped Evolution IPA.”

Attending the trial was a chimpanzee movie performer named Joe Mendi. Bryan College Archives

The history.com website recounts that

In the courtroom, Judge Raulston destroyed the defense’s strategy by ruling that expert scientific testimony on evolution was inadmissible – on the grounds that it was Scopes who was on trial, not the law he had violated.”

Darrow got to call his witnesses in any event, even though the testimony would be stricken from the record. He made the greatest impact by calling Bryan himself as a witness in an attempt to discredit his literal interpretation of the Bible, and rather successfully made a mockery of Bryan. Darrow then suggested that, because this testimony was inadmissible, to save time his client should be found guilty; in actuality Darrow wanted the opportunity to appeal the case. The jury took only eight minutes to return a verdict of guilty, and Judge Raulston ordered Scopes to pay a fine of $100, the minimum the law allowed.

The defense attorney Arthur Garfield Hay reading the scientist’s testimony during the Scopes trial. Credit: Smithsonian Institution

While technically Bryan had won, in fact he had been publicly humiliated. Moreover, the defense had publicized the scientific evidence for evolution, and the press reported that while Bryan had won the case, he had lost the argument. Five days after the verdict, on July 26, Bryan lay down for a Sunday afternoon nap and never woke up.

[The verdict did have a chilling effect on teaching evolution in the classroom, however, and it did not appear in textbooks until the 1960s.]

The trial documents are fascinating, and you can read them all online here.

In 1927, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the verdict on a technicality but left the constitutional issues unresolved until 1968, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a similar Arkansas law on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment.

The Arkansas legislature had passed a law in 1928 to prohibit the teaching in its public schools and universities of the theory that man evolved from other species of life. The Arkansas statute was an adaptation of the Tennessee “monkey law” adopted in 1925.

Epperson v. Arkansas (393 U.S. 97 (1968), considered whether the Arkansas law (or law in any state) forbidding the teaching of evolution violated either free speech rights of teachers or the Establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The 1968 case was brought by a teacher of biology in Little Rock. According to the testimony, for the first time in the academic year 1965-1966, the school administration adopted and prescribed a textbook which contained a chapter setting forth “the theory about the origin . . . of man from a lower form of animal.”

Susan Epperson was employed by the Little Rock school system in the fall of 1964 to teach 10th grade biology at Central High School. At the start of the 1965 academic year, she was confronted by the new textbook and faced at least a literal dilemma, because to teach the statutorily condemned chapter would be a criminal offense, and subject her to dismissal. She instituted an action in the Chancery Court of the State, which eventually was appealed up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Justice Abe Fortas

Seven members of the Court found that the statute did indeed violate the Establishment clause. As Oyez summarized the case:

Writing for the Court, Justice Abe Fortas stated that the law had been based solely on the beliefs of fundamentalist Christians, who felt that evolutionary theories directly contradicted the biblical account of Creation. This use of state power to prohibit the teaching of material objectionable to a particular sect amounted to an unconstitutional Establishment of religion.”

The two other members of the Court concurred in the result, writing that it violated either the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment (because it was unconstitutionally vague) or the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment.

Back in Tennessee, after the Scopes Trial, no other teacher was ever arrested for violating the Butler Act. But the law was not formally repealed. The ACLU was told by the governor’s office that since it was essentially a dead law, “there was no desire to ignite a political fight by trying to repeal it.”

Thus, as Open Mind explains, the law remained in force until 1967 when a teacher was dismissed for violating the act. The teacher filed a lawsuit against the law and the Tennessee legislature took advantage of the occasion to vote for its repeal. “The repeal process happened with astonishing rapidity: on May 15, a lawsuit was filed against the law, and the next day the State Senate voted for its annulment after less than three minutes of debate.”

But the theory of evolution still has its detractors. A 2015 Pew Research Center study shows that 34 percent of the population continues to reject evolution outright. The New York Times notes:

Nearly a century after the Scopes trial, an aversion to scientific findings continues to shape American public policy, with skeptics of the scientific consensus on climate change taking a number of top jobs in President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency.”

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