75 years after the Scopes trial pitted science against religion, the debate goes on

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A trial to test the law

In March 1925, Tennessee lawmakers passed a law against teaching in public school "any theory that denies the story of divine creation of man as taught in the Bible."

Tennessee was the first state to pass such a law, said Edward Larson, a University of Georgia law and history professor who wrote a book about the Scopes trial and the science versus religion debate called "Summer For The Gods," which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1998.

According to Larson, the local head of the now-defunct Cumberland Coal and Iron Co., George Rappalyea, did not like the new law.

After learning from the newspapers that the fledgling American Civil Liberties Union was seeking someone to challenge the law, Rappalyea approached the school board to help him find a teacher who would agree to be a legal guinea pig.

Linder and Larson said Rappalyea figured that if the trial were held in Dayton, it would attract national attention and, more important, tourism dollars and new business.

Cumberland coal was the dominant employer in the community of less than 2,000 people and the company had extracted all the coal and iron from the surrounding hills, said Tom Davis, spokesman for Bryan College, a Christian institution in Dayton named after William Jennings Bryan. Those who lost their jobs probably returned to working in agriculture, which was the mainstay of Dayton back then, but times were tough, Davis said.

School Board President Frank Earl Robinson, who owned a drug store in town and was also a correspondent for some newspapers, and other board members approached Scopes to be the test case. Scopes was the football coach at Rhea Central High School who also taught math and general science, and sometimes substitute-taught biology, Larson said. He reluctantly agreed to discuss evolutionary theory in class, and was arrested when he did, experts say.

Darrow agreed to take the case for free; he was by then famous as an orator and for taking on socially unpopular causes like defending labor leaders. Bryan agreed to defend the state because he believed the Bible and because he thought Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory had led to destructive social movements.

The trial also was the first to address the teaching of evolution in U.S. public school classrooms. Though public elementary school education had begun in the 1890s or so, states were beginning to offer universal middle and high school education in the early 1900s, Larson said.

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