July 13, 2000
Web posted at: 12:34 p.m. EDT (1634 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Seventy-five years ago, a Tennessee high school teacher named John Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution in violation of state law.
His trial, which began this week in 1925, became one of the most celebrated courtroom proceedings in U.S. legal history -- a "trial of the century" -- because of the high-profile players involved, the media attention it received and the issues it raised. It was also called the "monkey trial" because evolutionists maintain that humans and monkeys share a common ancestor.
Is evolution theory or scientific fact? Is creationism valid science? Is it fair for grade-school students to be taught only evolution and not creationism? The U.S. Supreme Court ruled decades after the Scopes trial that creationism should not be taught because it is a religious belief; the Constitution calls for separation of church and state.
"As a case it is not as much a legal landmark as much as a social landmark. It was a clash between traditionalism and its values and modernism and its values," said Douglas Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school, who teaches a seminar on famous trials. "It remains an issue. Darwinism and evolution challenge the notion that we are special as a species."
The grand oratorical battle between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan made for great press back then and attracted the likes of legendary journalist H.L. Mencken of the now-defunct Baltimore Evening Sun.
Darrow was an avowed agnostic, legendary defense attorney and Scopes' counsel. Bryan was a pacifist, Christian and a one-time presidential candidate who represented Tennessee. They were known to be the best orators of their time.
But experts say the trial was more of a publicity stunt than a serious court proceeding.