Town revisits role as site of historic 'monkey trial'

Tuesday, July 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DAYTON, Tenn. – In the same high-ceilinged courtroom, in the same unyielding wooden seats, audiences this week will hear a dose of oratory delivered 75 years ago at what many legal experts call the trial of the century.

During this week in 1925, this eastern Tennessee town was ground zero in a battle between religion and science. The Scopes "monkey trial" was the flash point for a nation wrestling with how to reconcile Darwin's theories with the Bible's version of creation.

The case continues to fascinate because Americans are no closer to reconciling faith with fact.

At Dayton's annual Scopes Trial Festival, which begins Thursday, ticket sales are brisk for the five courtroom performances of a condensed version of the trial. The town of 5,500 expects as many as 3,000 visitors.

The Scopes trial wasn't just a case of someone breaking the law against teaching evolution, said Tom Davis, a Dayton council member and spokesman for Bryan College. The small Christian school is named for William Jennings Bryan, the orator who defended the Bible's version of creation at the Scopes trial. "It raised issues of education, students' and parents' rights – and all of these things that we're still fighting about, still arguing about," he said.

Americans continue to disagree about whether Christmas displays on courthouse lawns blur the separation of church and state and whether a moment of silence in high school homeroom is a coercive religious act.

Just last week, Colorado's Board of Education voted to encourage schools to post the national motto "In God we trust." And Supreme Court decisions last month banned student-led prayers before sports events and upheld lower court rulings striking down a Louisiana school board decision that required the teaching of evolution to include a disclaimer mentioning "the biblical version of creation."

"We haven't settled the role of religion in public life," said Edward J. Larson, who won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion.

"I think it keeps coming back because the issue remains relevant," said Mr. Larson, who teaches history and law at the University of Georgia. "It really is symbolic of the lawsuits we have all the time testing the role of religion in modern society."

Trying to forget

Despite the case's significance, Dayton residents for years tried to forget the trial that brought the town the publicity its leaders eagerly sought in 1925.

Locals looking for a way to attract interest and financial investment in their community seized on an offer from the American Civil Liberties Union to pay the expenses of any teacher willing to challenge the state's new law outlawing the teaching of evolution.

Teacher John T. Scopes agreed to be the test case. "I realized that the best time to scotch the snake is when it starts to wiggle," Mr. Scopes wrote in his memoirs. "The snake already had been wiggling a good long time."

The prosecution lined up Mr. Bryan, an ardent Bible defender and three-time presidential candidate. The defense countered with Clarence Darrow, the country's most famous trial lawyer. The media, some equipped with state-of-the-art radio broadcasting equipment, descended on Dayton.

Decorations of monkeys and apes lined the stores along Main Street. A drugstore served up "simian" sodas. The police constable's motorcycle bore the sign "Monkeyville Police."

Monkey mania has been hard to shake. "Every once in a while, people drag the Scopes trial out when they want to make fun of Tennessee," said Glenn H. Reynolds, a professor at the University of Tennessee's College of Law.

Residents gave little thought to the trial until 1960, when Inherit the Wind debuted in Dayton. The movie, starring Spencer Tracy, was loosely modeled on the trial.

There was serious talk in the 1970s about tearing down the 1891 Romanesque Revival-Italian Villa courthouse and replacing it with something modern. Instead, it was restored and declared a National Historic Landmark.

Embracing the past

It wasn't until about a dozen years ago that Daytonians revisited the trial when Bryan College presented a re-enactment.

The production has turned out to be a surprising success, with locals filling most roles: A band director has played the judge, and a La-Z-Boy supervisor was the stentorian Mr. Darrow. The sheriff filled the role of the sheriff for a dozen years but had to get a stand-in last year when he was called to investigate a homicide.

The re-enactment concludes as the trial ends, with Mr. Scopes' conviction. The Tennessee Supreme Court ultimately overturned the conviction on a technicality, but the case had a chilling effect on science education for decades, said Gerald Skoog, an education professor at Texas Tech University who has analyzed the coverage of evolution in high school texts.

In Texas, months after the Scopes verdict, Gov. Miriam Ferguson forced textbook publishers to delete references to the theory of evolution from high school texts. Other states passed anti-evolution measures that remained on the books for decades.

It wasn't until the post-Sputnik era in the 1960s that evolution received "unprecedented coverage," though reversals followed in the more conservative 1980s, Mr. Skoog said. Recently, state science standards and some Supreme Court decisions have reinforced evolution education.

The conflict between science and faith continues because a majority of Americans are active in their churches and believers in a religion, said Joel Carpenter, provost of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and author of a book on fundamentalism called Revive Us Again.

"Not that they've got an ax to grind with science," he said, "but there's the sense that it doesn't answer all their questions. ... Can you explain human altruism in purely evolutionary terms? People don't buy it."

For some, astonishing scientific feats such as cloning and the successful project to map the human genome are scientific trumps, while for others, they merely confirm God's perfect and orderly design of the universe.

The questions hashed out 75 years ago in a stifling Dayton courtroom remain unresolved, Mr. Larson said, noting, "We're sort of oscillating around the same place."

June D. Bell is a free-lance writer based in Atlanta.