This month we are observing the 95th anniversary of the Scopes Trial, one of the most important religious freedom cases of the 20th century. It involved a fight to uphold the separation of church and state in the classroom by allowing students in Tennessee to learn about the scientific theory of evolution. This case still holds immense significance today, as creationists still seek to erode the teaching of evolution in public schools.
The “Scopes Monkey Trial,” as it was known, has an interesting history because it served multiple purposes. In 1925, Tennessee passed a bill called the Butler Act (because it was introduced by state Rep. John W. Butler) that made teaching evolution in public schools a misdemeanor. Outraged, the ACLU denounced the act for violating the First Amendment’s promise that government can’t establish a religion, and promised to defend teachers charged with teaching evolution.
At the same time, the trial served as a publicity stunt for the small town of Dayton, Tenn. The town, diminishing in size, wanted to use the ACLU’s announcement as a way to make headline news. The plan was for John Scopes, a local high school teacher, to admit to teaching evolution in his classroom. It worked.
Scopes was promptly arrested and put on trial for violating the Butler Act. Clarence Darrow, a prominent lawyer and member of the ACLU, took up his defense opposite William Jennings Bryan. Bryan, for his part, was both a political and religious figure who was a staunch anti-evolution activist. He eagerly volunteered to prosecute Scopes. In many ways, the trial became a public spectacle as Darrow and Bryan openly criticized each other, Bryan gave speeches about his anti-evolution crusade, and crowds showed up at the courthouse to listen to the trial.
Ultimately, the jury found Scopes guilty and he was fined $100.
Even though the defense lost the case, the Scopes Trial marked an important moment in the fight for the separation of religion and government. In the next few years following the trial, 22 other states attempted to prohibit the teaching of evolution, but ultimately were blocked in their efforts. And a few decades later, in the 1968 Supreme Court case Epperson v. Arkansas, the Supreme Court ruled against an Arkansas statute that banned the teaching of evolution as a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
Today, despite the precedent set in Epperson v. Arkansas, this topic still remains an issue of debate as Christian nationalists argue for creationism to be taught in schools and for the elimination of evolution from school curriculum as they try to merge religion and government. This December will mark the 15th anniversary of AU’s victory in a related case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, in which a federal judge struck down a Pennsylvania school district’s attempt to teach intelligent design in public schools.
AU will continue to fight for secular public schools that welcome all students, regardless of their religious beliefs, and teach curriculum that is based on science and history – not on a particular religious view. Join us to help protect our public schools!