1925: The 'Monkey Trial': John Scopes Was Charged with Violating Tennessee Law by Teaching Evolution in a Public School. His Trial Transfixed the Nation

By Roberts, Sam | New York Times Upfront, March 28, 2005 | Go to article overview

1925: The 'Monkey Trial': John Scopes Was Charged with Violating Tennessee Law by Teaching Evolution in a Public School. His Trial Transfixed the Nation


Roberts, Sam, New York Times Upfront


TEACHING OBJECTIVES

To help students understand the Scopes trial, a landmark legal battle between science and religion.

CRITICAL THINKING: Note Darrow's unusual move of calling prosecution attorney Bryan as a defense witness. Should the judge have allowed a prosecution lawyer to appear as a defense witness? Was Darrow trying to elicit expert information from Bryan or was he ridiculing him?

CHALLENGING THE SYSTEM: Ask students to think about how and why teacher Scopes and the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the law in Tennessee, rather than abide by it.

In particular, ask students why they think the ACLU wanted to force a court fight over teaching evolution. (To this day, the ACLU has both staunch supporters and vocal critics, but students should understand that its self-described function is to defend civil liberties protected by the Constitution.)

Whatever students think of the ACLU or evolution, they should recognize Scopes's courage. Would students take a stand to defend a practice, policy, or cause they believe in? Remind students of other Americans who stood up against popular opinion. Oliver and Leola Brown, parents of Linda Brown (Brown v. Board of Education), and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are examples of courageous people who stood up against social and legal constraints.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

* Do you believe the Tennessee law violated the First Amendment bar against "establishment of religion"?

* Why do you think disagreement over teaching evolution still rages, 80 years after the Scopes trial?

EXTRA CREDIT: You might rent the video of the 1960 film Inherit the Wind (PG; 128 min.) for showing in or out of class. Students can either write a brief analysis of the film or use it as the foundation for further class discussion.

FAST FACT: Scopes went on to receive a master's degree in geology from the University of Chicago and later worked as a petroleum engineer in Venezuela. WEB WATCH: www.law.umkc.edu /faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/scopes .htm, a University of Missouri, Kansas City, site provides 22 links to extensive background on the Scopes trial.

Eighty years ago this summer, a 24-year-old high school biology teacher in a tiny town in Tennessee became the focus of a landmark confrontation between science and devout religious belief.

The teacher, John T. Scopes, was charged with violating a Tennessee law that made it illegal to teach in public schools "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." Scopes's trial in July 1925 attracted celebrity lawyers for the prosecution and defense and was conducted largely outdoors before thousands of impassioned spectators.

Several agendas converged in Dayton, Tenn., to bring about what was popularly called the "monkey trial." Supporters of the evolution ban, enacted earlier that year by the state legislature, argued that Darwin's theory of natural selection undermined biblical teachings and religious faith because it was at odds with Genesis.

BRYAN VS. DARROW

The five-year-old American Civil Liberties Union, seeking to challenge the law on grounds that it violated the First Amendment ban against any law "respecting an establishment of religion," advertised for a teacher willing to defy it. Dayton's city fathers, sensing an opportunity to put their town on the map, quickly recruited Scopes, who believed in evolution, and in his right to teach it.

If Dayton officials craved attention, they succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. The city was transformed into a carnival, a cartoon version of the profound issues and deep-seated beliefs behind the trial. "Two months ago the town was obscure and happy," H.L. Mencken, the acerbic Baltimore Sun columnist wrote. "Today it is a universal joke. …

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