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How a Class-Action Lawsuit Changed History

The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, commonly called the Scopes Monkey Trial, was a 1925 legal battle in Tennessee that pitted a substitute school teacher against Tennessee law that forbade the teaching of evolution in publicly-funded schools. The trial drew immense publicity to the town of Dayton, Tennessee, mostly because of the famous lawyers involved. William Jennings Bryan represented the prosecution and Clarence Darrow the defense. A landmark class-action case, it paved the way for cases for modern day law firms that specialize in class-action suits. It was also one of the first American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) court battles. The trial and fallout challenged the educational system of the time and changed America forever.

Tennessee’s Butler Act

John Butler was a Tennessee state representative and farmer. He was also the head of the World Christian Fundamentals who actively lobbied to pass anti-evolution laws. The so-called Butler Act was passed in 1925 and signed into law by the governor, Austin Peay. Peay did not believe the law would be enforced or change education in the state. He needed the support of rural legislators who largely supported the Butler Act. Almost immediately, the ACLU sprang into action.

A Question of Publicity

The ACLU promised to pay for defense of any teacher who volunteered to break the law. Dayton merchants were eager to bring publicity and much-needed revenue into town and approached substitute science and math teacher John Scopes in to persuade him to break the law. Scopes agreed, admitting to teaching evolution from a textbook with an evolutionary chart and chapter explaining the concept. In fact, the book Scopes used was required textbook in Tennessee public schools at the time. Scopes was charged May 5, 1925.

A High-Profile Trial

The trial began in June with Clarence Darrow defending Scopes and former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan representing the prosecution. Judge John T. Raulston appeared biased toward the prosecution from the start. The judge allowed only one of the defense expert witnesses to testify. He ordered the remaining seven  to submit written statements to be used on appeal. Darrow abandoned the original defense strategy of challenging the Butler Act as unconstitutional and turned the trial into a debate about literal interpretation of the Bible. The jury had been excluded during the defense testimony and, after the defense ran out of witnesses, the judge declared  that any defense testimony related to the Bible was irrelevant and would not be presented to the jury. In a surprising move, the defense called opposing attorney Bryan to the stand as a Bible expert. The tension-filled examination went on until the judge grew impatient and adjourned.

The Verdict

The judge allowed the jury to hear little defense testimony and they had no choice but to find Scopes guilty. He was fined $100.

The Butler Act was not repealed in Tennessee until  1967, but the Scopes Monkey Trial was a catalyst for change in America’s educational system. The battle of evolution versus the Bible in public schools continues, however.

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