Scopes Monkey Trial

Scopes Monkey Trial

In 1925, at a high school in Dayton, Tennessee, a high school science teacher by the name of John Scopes tested a law about teaching evolution in the classroom. The law on the books in the United States was known as the Butler Act, and with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union, Scopes tested the law. What transpired from that case, has been the subject of discussion for decades.

The Butler Act was a Tennessee law put into place in 1925 which made it unlawful, in any state-funded educational establishment in Tennessee, "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." This is often interpreted as meaning that the law prohibited the teaching of any aspect of the theory of evolution. The trial was a turning point in the United States' creation-evolution controversy.

The trial pitted two of the most famous lawyers of the early 20th centuries. William Jennings Bryan was the prosecuting attorney and Clarence Darrow was the attorney for the defense. The trial was contested on religious beliefs, with Bryan following the southern religious teachings of creation, while Darrow attempted to put holes in Bryan's assertions. John T. Raulston, the presiding judge in the case, appeared to be sympathetic to the prosecution side, and would not accept most of the evidence to counter the prosecution. This frustrated Darrow and as a last result, actually called Bryan as a witness, and engaged in an interesting line of questioning regarding Bryan's knowledge of the bible and religion.

After eight days of trial, the jury deliberated only a total of nine minutes to return a guilty verdict. As a result, Scopes was ordered to pay a $100 fine. The lawyers for John Scopes appealed the decision with the Supreme Court of Tennessee. The decision stood, however, due to a technicality on the amount of fine, the decision was eventually thrown out.

The trial and decision was important to history in that it was the first test of the separation of church and state. Further decisions were made in legal history, prohibiting teaching any religious beliefs in a public school. The Scopes Trial has been a regular discussion point at criminal justice schools throughout the world.

The trial has been well documented, and has been the subject of many books, plays and movies. The movie "Inherit the Wind" was based on the Scopes Monkey Trial and has been remade several times by several different actors, and is still very good literature.