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Clarence Darrow - The Scopes Trial

bryan tennessee public law

In 1925 John T. Scopes, a twenty-four-year-old general science teacher and part-time football coach, faced charges brought by the state of Tennessee for violating its Anti-Evolution Law. William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) was a Tennessee politician who guided the law through the state's legislature. The 1925 law made teaching the theory of human evolution in the state's public schools a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum penalty of $500.

Although retired, Bryan joined the prosecution team to support the state's authority to control public school curriculum in the famous Scopes Trial. Clarence Darrow led a team of nationally prominent attorneys to defend Scopes's right to academic freedom in the public school system.

The lawsuit originated in the town of Dayton, Tennessee, when a copy of a newspaper arrived at the local drugstore with an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) advertisement. The ACLU announced it was offering its services free of charge to anyone who was willing to challenge the new Tennessee anti-evolution statute. Town leaders, including the school superintendent, became convinced the publicity generated by a controversial trial might help their dwindling population, which had fallen from a high of three thousand to only eighteen hundred by 1925.

They decided to use Scopes as their test case. Two local Dayton attorneys, also friends of Scopes, agreed to prosecute. The ACLU was contacted and began their selection of a high-profile defense team for the case. The Scopes case was headline news all over America for months before it finally came to trial. Because of the controversy, public feelings ran high and the trial captured the nation's attention.

A thousand people jammed the sweltering Rhea County Courthouse on July 10,1925 for the first day of trial. Hundreds of reporters covered the eight-day event, which was broadcast live over the radio to millions of homes and filmed for newsreels. It was the first live radio broadcast from a trial courtroom.

A carnival atmosphere pervaded the town with street banners, lemonade stands, and even chimpanzees performing in a sideshow. The court itself was moved outside to a tent in the courthouse square. Two thousand people crowded in by the final day of proceedings. The highlight of the battle within the trial was the sparring between Bryan and Darrow, the two famous attorneys. Darrow had been trying to engage Bryan in a public debate over science and religion for years and welcomed the chance at the Scopes trial.

The climax of events came when Darrow cross-examined Bryan, his longtime foe, after he called him to the witness stand as an expert on religion. The dramatic cross-examination by Darrow led to a furious argument until the judge finally called a halt.

The court narrowed the legal issue to whether Scopes ever taught the theory that humans were descended from other species and not from Adam and Eve as written in the Bible. The defense agreed to this fact; they asked jurors for a conviction so they could appeal the law. The jury convicted Scopes and he was fined $100.00. William Jennings Bryan died five days after the trial ended.

Ruling in 1927, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the statute but overturned Scopes's conviction on a technicality and directed prosecutors not to retry him. The Scopes trial had a profound cultural impact despite its legal insignificance. It was the focus of a popular Hollywood movie Inherit the Wind (1960). In 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Epperson v. Arkansas, declared antievolution statutes to be unconstitutional as well as in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state expressed in the First Amendment.

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