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Today in History: The 'Monkey Trial' Begins

On this day in 1925, evolution versus divine creation took center stage.

Today in History: The 'Monkey Trial' Begins

A debate that continued well into the 21st Century, the Scopes "Monkey Trial" took place in 1925 when a Tennessee man was accused of breaking a state law that prohibited the teaching of the theory of evolution.

According to NPR's Remembering the Scopes Monkey Trial, John Thomas Scopes worked with others in an effort to get charged with the misdemeanor so he could bring the issue to court.

Are you surprised that the issue returned to the courtroom in 2005? 

In March of 1925 Tennessee legislators passed the Butler Law, making it a misdemeanor 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." 

Considered one of the most famous trials in U.S. history, the "Monkey Trial" reportedly brought thousands of people to the town of Dayton, TN. Some came for the fanfare and some came to see the big name attorneys fighting on both sides of the issue.

Some of the most well-known coverage of the trial was written by Baltimore Sun reporter H.L. Mencken

William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate, argued for the prosecution, while famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow argued for Scopes.

The judge overruled the defense's motion to have the Butler law declared unconstitutional. According to an NPR, the judge said in his ruling that the law "gives no preference to any particular religion or mode of worship. Our public schools are not maintained as places of worship, but, on the contrary, were designed, instituted, and are maintained for the purpose of mental and moral development and discipline."

In the end, Scopes was found guilty and was ordered to pay a $100 fine.

In 1927 the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the verdict on a technicality, but the constitutional issues remained unresolved until 1968, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a similar law on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment, according to History.com.

In 2005 another court battle ensued when parents pushed back against the teaching of "intelligent design" by the Dover Area School Board in Pennsylvania.

According to the New York Times, a federal judge ruled that since the concept of “intelligent design” was not science, but "creationism relabled," it would be a violation of the First Amendment to teach it in public schools as it would allow officials to establish or impose a particular religion.


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