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


Six hundred people crowded into the Rhea County, Tennessee, courthouse when the trial began on July 10, 1925



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Six hundred people crowded into the Rhea County, Tennessee, courthouse when the trial began on July 10, 1925

 




The prospect of two American luminaries clashing in a courtroom and the issues raised by the trial attracted a gaggle of journalists from all over, including Mencken, then the most famous journalist in the United States.

The crowds who gathered at the Dayton courtroom to listen to the heated rhetoric were not disappointed.

F

or instance, Mencken's July 21, 1925, dispatch quoted Darrow as saying that he wanted to "show up fundamentalism" and "prevent bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the educational system of the United States." He wrote that Bryan, his face purple, shook his fist in Darrow's face and yelled that he wanted to "protect the word of God from the greatest atheist and agnostic in the United States."

The legal issue was somewhat beside the point -- whether Scopes broke the anti-evolution law. The judge easily found that he did, and fined him $100. The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the conviction on the technicality that the jury, not the judge, should have imposed the fine, Larson said.

Scopes did not go to prison. Someone else paid the fine. In fact, Scopes gave up teaching after the trial and went off to study geology at the University of Chicago with scholarship money from a fund set up on his behalf by journalists and scientists. Scopes then embarked on a successful career with the oil industry.

Larson said state Supreme Court did not overturn the anti-evolution law -- the reason the ACLU brought the lawsuit in the first place. But Darrow did get a small measure of victory: the Supreme Court directed Tennessee prosecutors not indict anyone under the law.

Evolution continued to be taught in some Tennessee schools and elsewhere in the nation in the years after the Scopes trial, Larson said. But many schools to this day stay away from the topic because it is controversial -- proof that the "culture wars" brought to the fore by the Scopes trial are still going on, Larson said.





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