July 10, 2008

Scopes Trial Anniversary

Today is the 83rd anniversary of the first day of Scopes v. State, 152 Tenn. 424, 278 S.W. 57, better known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. John Scopes had been charged with violating Tennessee's Butler Act, named for state legislator John W. Butler and passed in January of 1925. John Scopes, 1924The act was passed by both houses of the state legislature with broad support and signed by governor Austin Peay who thought it an insignificant bit of legislative fluff that would help ingratiate him with rural voters. Since nobody in Tennessee to that point had been teaching evolutionary biology in the school's classrooms and Peay thought that the textbooks used taught nothing more about the origins of biological diversity than the creation myth from Genesis, he didn't believe that the Butler Act would ever change anything. The Butler Act, furthermore, didn't specify that Biblical Creationism be taught, only that any theory of human origins to be taught in a state-sponsored science classroom include the idea that mankind is of divine origin.

After a careful examination, I can find nothing of consequence in the books now being taught in our schools with which this bill will interfere in the slightest manner. Therefore, it will not put our teachers in jeopardy. Probably the law will never be applied. It may not be sufficiently definite to admit of any specific application or enforcement. Nobody believes that this is going to be an active statute.

— Austin Peay, 1925

Peay was wrong, of course. He signed the Butler Act into law on March 21, 1925. Scopes was indicted in April of that year, having taught a lesson including reference to Darwin's theory of evolution from a state-mandated science textbook, Civic Biology, which had been published eleven years prior. Formal charges against Scopes were in place by May 7 — less than 8 weeks after the Butler Act became law in Tennessee.

The trial became an early media circus for the American press. In the end, Scopes was found guilty of having violated the Butler Act on July 21, 1925 and ordered to pay a fine of $100. Scopes himself never testified until this point, and was given the opportunity only after sentence had been passed.
Your honor, I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue in the future, as I have in the past, to oppose this law in any way 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.

— John Scopes, July 21, 1925

Scopes' conviction was appealed but the appeal was denied and the Butler Act found to be constitutionally sound. It remained in effect in Tennessee until 1967, a year before the US Supreme Court ruled in Epperson vs. Arkansas that such laws violated the Establishment Clause that separates church and state.

Flash forward 83 years now to Louisiana, where a law not terribly unlike the Butler Act has been passed by the state legislature and signed by governor Bobby Jindal. The Louisiana Science Education Act again singles out teaching on the origin of biological diversity with nods at other "controversial" subjects in science, mainly in biology. It doesn't specify that lessons on human origins include reference to divine intervention — but it doesn't preclude them, and by specifying that it doesn't "promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs," it leaves the door wide open for inserting such material into science lessons once a teacher has finished teaching "material presented in the standard textbook supplied by the school system." Of course, there's nothing that says how long the teacher must spend on said materials (an hour? a day? a week?) before bringing in materials promoting non-scientific materials in order to "critique" evolutionary biology.

It all points up nicely that there hasn't been much intellectual evolution in the past 83 years in some quarters. Were John Scopes still alive today, the irony of legislation like the LSEA being termed "academic freedom" bills probably wouldn't be lost upon him.

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