John Thomas Scopes
often called the "monkey trial"


Scopes trial was one of the most famous and controversial legal cases in United States history. The trial involved a high school teacher named John Thomas Scopes, and it took place in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. Scopes was found guilty of violating a Tennessee law that made it illegal to teach the theory of evolution in public schools. This theory suggests that human beings developed from simpler life forms over a long period. By law, public school teachers were allowed to teach only the Biblical account of the Creation, which tells how God created human beings essentially as they exist today. Many scientists accepted the view that monkeys and human beings had common ancestors, and so the Scopes case was often called the "monkey trial."

The trial attracted worldwide attention, largely because of the participation of two celebrities, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. Bryan, an unsuccessful candidate for president of the United States three times, aided the prosecution. He believed in fundamentalism, a movement whose members insist that words of the Bible should be taken literally. Darrow, a famous criminal lawyer, defended Scopes. Darrow strongly supported the right to teach evolution. Bryan, considered an expert on the Bible, accepted Darrow's challenge to become a witness. But Darrow humiliated and outsmarted Bryan in the cross-examination.

Legally, the Scopes case was unimportant. Scopes was fined $100, but the conviction was later reversed because of a small legal error. The Tennessee law remained in effect until 1967, when the state legislature abolished it.

Contributor: Kevin Tierney, LL.M., Prof. of Law, Hastings College of the Law, Univ. of California, San Francisco.


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