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Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Butler Act Passed, March 13, 1925

Today in 1925, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the Butler Act, a law which stated, in part:

“ shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities...and other public schools of the teach 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.”

This act was tested in court later that year in the famous case known as “The Scopes Monkey Trial.”

As it remains today, the theory of evolution was controversial in 1925. Many critics of the theory claimed that one could not support the theory without marking oneself as an atheist. Whether this is true or not is still debated today among theologians and others with a religious inclination.

One of the strong voices behind the Butler Act was William Jennings Bryan. Bryan, from Illinois, was already a well-known figure in early 20th century America. He had been the Democratic nominee for the Presidency three times and was a leading public voice on many of the divisive issues of the day. Some referred to him as “The Great Commoner” because of his populist beliefs. Bryan argued that evolution could not be logically proven and was immoral in its assumptions and conclusions.

On the other side of the issue stood the American Civil Liberties Union, which offered to defend anyone accused of violating the Butler Act. The man who they chose to defend was a high school football coach named John Scopes. Scopes was not the full-time science teacher in his school, but he had taught the class as a substitute. Since the state-mandated science book used in Tennessee at that time did contain a chapter on evolution, Scopes argued that he had, in effect, taught evolution. Two local prosecutors (both friends of Scopes’) had him charged with violating the Butler Act.

The potential for the trial to become a media circus was enormous. The proceedings were broadcast on radio, a fairly new medium that was exploding in popularity. Additionally, both the prosecution and defense teams contained men who were already well-known in the public eye, primarily William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense.

The defense’s main argument wavered during the trial. At first, Darrow argued that the Butler Act was unconstitutional because it violated the Constitution’s wording on the separation of Church and State. As things became more heated, Darrow called Bryan himself to the stand to defend the legitimacy of Biblical history. Scopes himself never testified. After a week and a day of trial, it took the jury less than ten minutes to find Scopes guilty; the judge ordered him to pay a $100 fine. William Jennings Bryan, lead prosecutor, offered to pay the fine for the teacher.

Scope’s team appealed the decision to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The Court overturned Scope’s conviction on a technicality, but ruled that the Butler Act was constitutional nonetheless. The Supreme Court finally ruled on a similar law in 1968, saying that such acts were in violation of the US Constitution’s Establishment Clause because their primary reason for existence is religious.

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