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Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Butler Act Passed, March 13, 1925

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

"That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals {schools whose purpose was to train teachers} and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to 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."

The man who lent his name to the Act was John Washington Butler, a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. He had concluded that teaching about the evolution of humans in public schools discredited the creation story as told in the Bible. This motivated him to become the author of the law. While many statutes such as the Butler Act had been passed in the United States and elsewhere since the publication of Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’ in 1859, this particular one would become an important part of history because its passage led the way for what was called at that time “the trial of the century”--- Scopes v State, better known today as the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Teachers could be fined between $100 and $500 for violating the Butler Act, which was considered a misdemeanor. As written, the law did not forbid the teaching of natural selection or, for example, that mammals such as dogs are descended from simpler animals and share a common ancestor with, say, cats. It simply prohibited the teaching of evolution as related to human beings.

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 or ACLU, which offered to defend anyone accused of violating the Butler Act. The man who they first 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 contained 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. Thus, the trial was a test case---Scopes wanted to be charged with violating the Act and the state of Tennessee wanted to see how it stood up to scrutiny.

The trial was held in Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee over eleven days in July, 1925. It was described in Time magazine as “the fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war.” 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 (who we've already discussed) for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense.

Attorney Clarence Darrow was a leading member of the ACLU and was already famous for his participation in many well-known and controversial trials. Today, Darrow would be considered a liberal in the United States, although the meaning of that term has changed in the past 85 years and it is doubtful Darrow would have accepted our definition. In a nation that was, at least to outside observers, devoutly Christian, Clarence Darrow was an agnostic and made no secret of it.

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 set aside Scope’s conviction on a technicality, but ruled that the Butler Act was constitutional. The US 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 was religious. The Butler Act had already been repealed in Tennessee in 1967.

The effect of the Butler Act and the Scopes trial on science education in the United States has been enormous and volumes have been written about its impact on society at large. However, the act and trial have suffered greatly at the hands of historians of all political stripes who have done their best to bend reality to their will. Most Americans' knowledge of the trial comes from the play 'Inherit the Wind', which debuted in 1955. The play contains a disclaimer stating that the events portrayed therein are not based on any actual event, even though the intention is to reproduce the events of the Scopes trial in a more dramatic fashion than reality provided. The play has been adapted for film and screen several times since the mid-1950s, yet the trial itself was not mentioned in any American history textbooks until the late 1960's, and even during my time in high school was only discussed in passing as part of a discussion of the early 20th-century South.

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