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Scopes Trial

The Scopes Trial of 1925 pitted William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow in an American court case that tested a law passed on March 13, 1925, forbidding the teaching of evolution in Tennessee public schools. It has often been called the "Scopes Monkey Trial".

At issue was the Butler Act, which had been passed a few months earlier. It said:

That 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.

The American Civil Liberties Union had offered to defend anyone accused of teaching evolution in defiance of the law. In Dayton, Tennessee, then a town of less than 3,000 souls, a 24-year-old science teacher and athletic coach named John T. Scopes was chosen. The original prosecutors were his friends.

William Jennings Bryan, a fundamentalist preacher and three-time Presidential candidate for the United States Democratic Party, served on the prosecution team. The ACLU arranged for Clarence Darrow to defend Scopes pro bono; there were other lawyers on the defense team as well. The trial was covered by journalist H.L. Mencken for the Baltimore Sun, which was paying part of the defense's expenses.

The defense strategy was to have the charges thrown out on the grounds that laws forbidding the teaching of evolution were unconstitutional. They brought in a panoply of experts on evolution, who were not allowed to testify. Having failed in that, they sought a guilty verdict so they could appeal to a higher court. Through a legal maneuver, the defense prevented Bryan from making his summation. Scopes never testified, as there was never a legal issue as to whether he had taught evolution. (There seems to have been some question about whether he really did ever teach evolution, but the point wasn't contested at trial.) The law itself was on trial.

After 8 days of trial, during which Darrow was charged with contempt but later apologized, Scopes was fined $100 for defying the ban against teaching evolution. (The judgment was overturned on appeal due to a technicality.) Not until 1968 did the US Supreme Court rule in Epperson vs. Arkansas that such bans contravene the Establishment Clause because their primary purpose is religious.

The trial also brought publicity to the town of Dayton, Tennessee, leading some to speculate that it was a publicity stunt. From The Salem Republican, June 11, 1925:

"The whole matter has assumed the portion of Dayton and her merchants endeavoring to secure a large amount of notoriety and publicity with an open question as whether Scopes is a party to the plot or not."

The stage play Inherit the Wind (1955), by Lawrence and Lee, later adapted as a film in 1960 by Stanley Kramer[?], was (very loosely) based around this trial. It was not intended to depict the trial accurately but rather to decry the excesses of the Joseph McCarthy era in 1950s politics. It starred Spencer Tracy as Darrow and Gene Kelly as Mencken. In 1988, a rewrite of the Kramer movie shown on NBC starred Jason Robards[?] as Darrow and Kirk Douglas as Bryan.

The trial is described in detail in the Pulitzer-prize-winning book Summer for the Gods by Edward J. Larson; also useful is Ray Ginger's Six Days or Forever.



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