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Scopes Monkey Trial


The criminal prosecution of John T. Scopes was an attack by citizens of Dayton, Tennessee, on a Tennessee statute that banned the teaching of evolution in public schools. The Butler Act, passed in early 1925 by the Tennessee General Assembly, punished public school teachers who taught "that man has descended from a lower order of animals" or any theory "that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible."

Some citizens of Dayton decided to challenge the statute. On the last day of school in May 1925, they congregated in Robinson's Drug Store and devised a plan to use a willing teacher to challenge the constitutionality of the statute. According to the plan, a teacher would admit to teaching evolution and volunteer to face criminal charges under the statute. One person in the assemblage suggested John T. Scopes, a popular substitute teacher who had taught science and coached athletics at the high school for the past year.

Scopes agreed, and within days he was accused of criminal teachings. He was arrested, indicted, and released pending trial in the town of Dayton. He faced no jail time. If convicted of the offense, Scopes would have had to pay a fine of at least $100, but no more than $500.

News of the case touched off a national debate on creationism, evolution, and public school teaching. Vendors, preachers, journalists, and gawkers descended on the town of Dayton during the months of June and July. The case also attracted legal celebrities. General A. T. Stewart was joined by a host of special counsel for the prosecution, including william jennings bryan. Bryan, age 65, was a skilled speaker, veteran lawyer, and former presidential candidate. A Dayton newspaper asked the eminent litigator clarence seward darrow, age 68, to defend Scopes. Darrow, an ardent opponent of religious fundamentalism, agreed to defend Scopes free of charge. He was assisted by Dudley Field Malone and Arthur Garfield Hays of the american civil liberties union.

The trial began on July 10 in the midst of a blistering heat wave, but the intense heat did not deter spectators. The courtroom was so crowded that the last part of the trial was held outside in the courthouse yard to accommodate the large audience.

Much of the trial was consumed by arguments on evidence and orations delivered by Bryan, Darrow, or Hays. Some of these orations were directed not toward the judge and jury but toward the gallery, which responded with jeers, cheers, and catcalls. Because Scopes did not deny that he had taught evolution, his lawyers sought to sway the jury into nullifying the statute by acquitting him in spite of the evidence. Darrow, Malone, and Hays attempted to win over the jury by attacking creationism and confirming the theory of evolution.

The most significant evidence offered by the defense did not make it into the record. Darrow placed Bryan on the witness stand and questioned him on the merits of evolution and creationism. The most memorable moments of the trial consisted of the debate between the two men. However, the examination of Bryan had little impact on the jury's decision because the jury was not present to hear it. After Bryan stepped down from the witness stand, the defense rested. The Tennessee jury found Scopes guilty.

Raulston instructed the jury that it could leave the punishment to the court. The jury did not set the fine, so Raulston set it at $100. Scopes appealed the verdict to the Tennessee Supreme Court, arguing that the statute was unconstitutional because it violated the separation of church and state under the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, his local counsel, John R. Neal, failed to file a bill of exceptions within 30 days after the trial. Without such a bill, Scopes's arguments on appeal were limited to the actual trial transcript.

The Tennessee Supreme Court did not decide whether the statute was constitutional. It held merely that the fine was invalid under the state constitution (Scopes v. State, 154 Tenn. 105, 289 S.W. 363 [1927]). Under article VI, section 6, of the Tennessee Constitution, a judge could not fine anyone more than $50. In the opinion, written by Chief Justice Grafton Green, the court urged the state to dismiss the case against Scopes, noting that Scopes was no longer in the employ of the state and declaring, "We see nothing to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case."

Bryan died shortly after the trial. Darrow litigated several more high-profile cases, and Scopes returned to his teaching career. Scopes never had to pay the fine levied by Raulston. When asked later in life whether he had any regrets about the case, Scopes said, "… my decision would be the same as it was in 1925. I would go home and think about it. I would sleep on it. And the next day I would do it again."

Scopes received a measure of vindication shortly before his death in 1970. In 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional statutes that forbid the teaching of evolution (Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 89 S. Ct. 266, 21 L. Ed. 2d 228). Since the Epperson case, advocates of creationism have been hard pressed to find public schools willing to teach scientific creationism. In a gradual reversal of fortune, scientific creationists have been unable to obtain equal time for the teaching of creationism in public schools. In 1987, a splintered U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Louisiana statute that mandated equal time for the teaching of creationism violated the First Amendment because it served no identified secular purpose and had the primary purpose of promoting a particular religious belief (Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 107 S. Ct. 2573, 96 L. Ed. 2d 510).

further readings

Baker, Debra. 1999. "Trials of the Century." ABA Journal 85 (January).

Larson, Edward J. 1997. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: BasicBooks.

Moran, Jeffrey P. 2002. The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Palgrave.

Paine, Donald F. 1996. "State of Tennessee v. John Scopes Revisited." Tennessee Bar Journal 32 (May–June).

Scopes, John Thomas. 1997. The World's Most Famous Court Trial: Tennessee Evolution Case: A Complete Stenographic Report of the Famous Court Test of the Tennessee Anti-Evolution Act, at Dayton, July 10 to 21, 1925, Including Speeches and Arguments of Attorneys. Union, N.J.: The Lawbook Exchange.

Uelmen, Gerald F. 1996. "The Trial as a Circus: Inherit the Wind." University of San Francisco Law Review 30 (summer).


Religion; Schools and School Districts.

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