Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes
In 1925 a trial was staged to bring attention to Dayton, Tennessee but it became one of the best-known legal events in America. Called the “Scopes Monkey Trial” the case The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes was charged with violating the state’s Butler Act, which forbade teaching any evolution in school. Scopes was a substitute teacher chosen to be fined $100 for breaking the law and paving the way for the trial.
The Butler Act had been passed just months before, in March 1925, by a rural farmer who was head of the World Christian Fundamentalists and was convinced that teaching evolutionary theory in school conflicted with Biblical teaching and would lead to dissolution of the moral fabric of the community. It was signed into law by Governor Austin Peay who allegedly did so to win rural votes.
The American Civil Liberties Union planned to challenge the law, which was the first ever to be broadcast on the radio.
More important than the defendant were the attorneys assembled for the case, two of the best-known minds in law at the time including William Jennings Bryan (prosecution) and Clarence Darrow (defense). In a dramatic twist they cross examined each other during the trial, with Darrow questioning Bryan on his knowledge of the Bible and creationism.
The judge was decidedly hostile toward the defense, even excluding the jury from the portion of the trial that involved defense witnesses. In addition, scientists called by the defense were not questioned during the proceedings but allowed to submit written opinions and testimony. When the defense rested without offering a final summation of its case the prosecutor, Bryan, should have remained mum but he distributed his summation to the press. The defendant, Scopes, was never called to testify but made a statement at the time of sentencing that reiterated his quest for academic freedom and desire to teach science.
The Tennessee Supreme Court heard the appeal of Scopes’ conviction, arguing that the Butler Act violated the Tennessee state constitution, that it violated the prohibition against establishing a statewide religion, that it violated Scopes’ First Amendment right to teach as he saw fit, and that the Act only vaguely defined evolution.
The Supreme Court found that the lower court had erred in the way Scopes was fined (the jury was supposed to set the amount, not the judge) so it set aside the lower court’s verdict and chose not to pursue (nolle prosequi) any further action on the case.
The result was that one of the most famous cases in U.S. history was moot.
The Butler Act remained on the books in Tennessee as a legally enforceable law that was rarely used until a teacher was dismissed on the grounds of violating it in 1967. As the teacher pursued having the law rescinded through a class action suit both houses of the state legislature agreed to repeal the Butler Act.