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March 22: The Butler Act and Evolution (1925)

Butler Act v. Evolution (1925)

It was on this date, March 22, 1925, that Tennessee passed the Butler Act, making it unlawful in public schools "to teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animals." And it was in the town of Dayton, Tennessee — population 1,800 and falling — where a bespectacled high school teacher named John T. Scopes, age 24, ran afoul of that law by assigning readings from Hunter's Civic Biology — a state-approved textbook — in short, relying on science in his biology class, rather than the Bible.

The Tennessee law was part of a national legislative campaign fathered by three-time losing presidential contender William Jennings Bryan. Tennessee was not the first or the last battleground for pseudoscience against science. Oklahoma and Florida had both passed anti-evolution laws in 1923. Mississippi and Arkansas passed their own anti-evolution laws within three years of the Scopes guilty verdict. Tennessee, not to be outdone in piety, went further in 1973, passing a law mandating both the labeling of evolution as "a theory" and the devotion of equal space in textbooks to "other theories," explicitly including Genesis.

Arkansas and Louisiana got onto the "equal time" bandwagon in 1981. And 2001 seemed to be a banner year for anti-science — or maybe it was a millennium bug — with anti-evolution bills introduced into the legislatures of Louisiana, Michigan, Washington State, Georgia, West Virginia, Arkansas, and Montana.

What might have been the Waterloo of creationism, or so-called Intelligent Design Theory, was the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District decision, in which the plaintiffs successfully argued that intelligent design is a form of creationism, and that the school board policy requiring the teaching of creationism as an alternative to evolutionary theory violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, but really embarrassed the Dover school district officials and “intelligent design” supporters.

Although Tennessee's trial of John T. Scopes was the most famous — it inspired the 1955 play Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee — several court cases followed. Forty years afterward, science teacher Susan Epperson tested the 1928 Arkansas anti-evolution law — and won. But the Arkansas Supreme Court overturned the ruling, so it took the US Supreme Court to get religion out of science class. That precedent was good enough for the Mississippi Supreme Court to strike down Mississippi's own anti-evolution law.

In 1967, back in Tennessee, teacher Gary L. Scott, was fired under the Butler Act, took it to court, and this time got the Tennessee Senate to repeal it. Within a decade a pair of court cases overturned the "equal space" law, as well. Attacks on the science of human origins continue to this day. As of the first few months of 2011, nine bills promoting creationism in public schools have been introduced in state legislatures – in Texas, Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Missouri- and some even have a chance of succeeding… in making America a second-class nation in science! But the modern assault on evolutionary theory pretty much started in the Tennessee legislature on this date, March 22, back in 1925.

Originally published March 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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