The Scopes “Monkey” Trial 1925
The Tennessee state legislature enacted a measure in March 1925 prohibiting the teaching of evolution in all educational institutions in the state.
The Butler Act sounded the alarm across the country. The ACLU promptly offered to represent any teacher facing charges under the law. John Scopes, a famous high school science teacher, agreed to be the defendant in a law-challenge test case. On May 7, 1925, he was arrested and charged with teaching evolution theory. The defense was led by Clarence Darrow, a highly capable, experienced, and nationally recognized criminal defense attorney, and Arthur Garfield Hays, the ACLU’s General Counsel. They argued that the Tennessee statute was unconstitutional because it made a religious document, the Bible, the standard of truth in a government institution. William Jennings Bryan, a former Secretary of State, presidential contender, and the most well-known conservative Christian advocate in the country, headed the prosecution. His technique was straightforward: he needed to show that John Scopes had broken Tennessee law.
The Scopes trial became one of the most dramatic cases of the twentieth century, capturing public attention and introducing the ACLU to millions of Americans for the first time. On a daily basis, the courtroom was packed with about 1000 people and over 100 newspapers. The trial, which received enormous national and international headline press attention, was the first to be carried live on the radio. The case “gives scientific men a better opportunity than they have ever had to bring their teaching home to millions,” according to a New York Times editorial.
The judge, a devout Christian, began each day’s proceedings with prayer and barred the defense from calling any scientific experts. Darrow retaliated with a novel trial strategy that paid off. He called opposing counsel, Bryan, as a Bible expert witness and humiliated him in front of the court for days by interrogating him about his literal interpretation of the Bible. Bryan fell into every trap and further damaged his reputation by saying, “I don’t think about stuff I don’t think about.” He died a week after the trial, weary and humiliated in front of the people.
The trial only lasted eight days, and the jury returned a guilty verdict in less than nine minutes. John Scopes received a $100 fine. The ACLU wanted to use the opportunity to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court, but the verdict was overturned on a technicality by the state supreme court. Nonetheless, the trial’s final outcome was significant and far-reaching: the Butler Act was never implemented again, and legislation limiting the teaching of evolution were rejected in 22 states during the next two years. Americans, for the most part, saw the religious fundamentalist cause as the loser in the trial, and they were more aware of the necessity to legally separate the teaching of theology from scientific education; anti-evolution legislation became a national laughingstock.
The ACLU stayed vigilant, waiting for another opportunity to present its case to the Supreme Court in a case involving anti-evolution legislation. After more than four decades, an opportunity occurred when the ACLU filed an amicus brief on Susan Epperson’s behalf, an Arkansas Zoology teacher who challenged a state ban on teaching “that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals.” In Epperson v. Arkansas, the Supreme Court unanimously held the Arkansas legislation to be an unconstitutional infringement of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)