This week marks 83 years since a jury in tiny Dayton, Tennessee convicted and fined $100 a teacher by the name of John T. Scopes, a man who had the courage and determination of spirit to challenge a state law forbidding the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The ACLU (yes we were even causing trouble all the way back then) put out an offer in a Chattanooga newspaper to defend a teacher who was willing to challenge the state law prohibiting the teaching of “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.”
The legendary Scopes “Monkey Trial” would pit two giants of American legal history, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, against one another in this summertime showdown over academic freedom. When the verdict against Scopes was read, he memorably stated his intention “to oppose this law in any way that I can. Any other action would be in violation of my ideal of academic freedom — that is, to teach the truth as guaranteed in our constitution, of personal and religious freedom.” Scopes’ guilty verdict would later be overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court, but this case would go on to be remembered as one of the most famous trials of the 20th century. It would serve as the basis for Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s play Inherit the Wind in 1955, which was later turned into a famous film of the same name starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March in 1960. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend adding it to your Netflix list.
Hard as it might be to believe, controversy over the teaching of evolution still exists in many parts of our country to this day. It was just in 2005, that Judge John E. Jones III ruled in a landmark case brought by the ACLU and our allies that so-called “intelligent design” is little more than creationism under a different name and represents a particular religious belief, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, that has no place being taught in a science classroom setting.
Last month, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed into law legislation that will make it easier for religious beliefs to work their way into science classrooms. Clearly the legacy of the Monkey Trial from eight decades ago is still very much with us in the present.