Court Decision in the Scopes Trial Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The growing divide between modern urban secularism and traditional religious values in the 1920s United States took the spotlight when Tennessee passed the Butler Act in 1925, prohibiting publicly funded schools from teaching the theory of evolution. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered financial and legal support to any teacher willing to be prosecuted under the new law, hoping to appeal the case to the US Supreme Court and have the law declared unconstitutional.

Summary Overview

The growing divide between modern urban secularism and traditional religious values in the 1920s United States took the spotlight when Tennessee passed the Butler Act in 1925, prohibiting publicly funded schools from teaching the theory of evolution. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered financial and legal support to any teacher willing to be prosecuted under the new law, hoping to appeal the case to the US Supreme Court and have the law declared unconstitutional.

John Scopes, a young high school science teacher at Rhea County High School in Dayton, Tennessee, accepted the challenge and was arrested and prosecuted after teaching a lesson on evolution. A jury found him guilty following an eleven-day trial presided over by Judge John T. Raulston. The defense appealed the case, State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, but rather than ruling on the constitutionality of the statute, the court reversed the verdict on a technicality and dismissed the case.

Defining Moment

During the 1920s, American culture moved toward secular and scientific notions of morals and ethics, especially in larger urban centers. This created a backlash of increased religious traditionalism, particularly among Christian fundamentalists in the South. Fearing that modern secularism would undermine long-standing values, many Southern states sought to ban the teaching of scientific subjects they believed contradicted the Bible.

One such law was the Butler Act, a Tennessee statute sponsored by District Representative John Washington Butler that made it a misdemeanor punishable by fine of $100 to $500 to teach the theory of evolution in any school that received state funding. The bill was signed into state law on March 21, 1925, by Governor Austin Peay. Later that spring, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered its services to defend anyone willing to challenge the law. The organization’s goal was to have the law struck down by the US Supreme Court for violating the US Constitution, ideally before other states could pass and enforce similar laws.

In early May, mining engineer George Rappleyea (sometimes spelled Rappalyea), local fundamentalist attorney Sue Kerr Hicks (named after his mother, who died during his birth) and county superintendent of schools Walter White reportedly met in a local drugstore to discuss the ACLU’s proposal (Hicks later disputed this version of events). While the three men disagreed on the propriety of teaching evolution in public schools, they quickly agreed that prosecuting a test case in Dayton could benefit the town’s economy. The proposition carried significant weight for both sides: if Hicks and White won, Tennessee would likely pursue more active enforcement of the Butler Act; if Rappleyea and his supporters won, the law would be struck down and repealed.

Young local science teacher John Scopes agreed to teach a lesson on evolution, knowing that he would be arrested for violating the Butler Act. Following his indictment on May 25, 1925, the ACLU offered several attorneys to represent him. When former attorney and federal politician William Jennings Bryan came out of retirement to join the prosecution, prominent criminal defense attorney Clarence Darrow stepped in to assist with Scopes’s defense.

Both the prosecution and defense wanted the jury to find Scopes guilty at trial: the prosecution wanted to see the statute enforced against a teacher who admittedly violated its provisions, while the defense wanted the ability to appeal the case to a higher court on constitutional grounds. The “Scopes monkey trial,” as it became known, quickly grew from a simple case about a statute violation to a case on constitutional freedoms and the separation of church and state and, ultimately, into a much larger debate over whether and how religion and science could coexist in modern American society.

After eleven days of trial, the jury found Scopes guilty of violating the Butler Act. As planned, the defense appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, hoping for a decision that could be brought before the US Supreme Court for a federally decisive ruling on the constitutionality of anti-evolution statutes. The state high court’s decision in the case was authored by Chief Justice Grafton Green.

Author Biography

Grafton Green was born on August 12, 1872, in Lebanon, Tennessee. Green was born into a prominent legal family: his father, Nathan Green, Jr., was the chancellor of the Cumberland University School of Law; his grandfather, Nathan Green, Sr., had served on the Tennessee Supreme Court from 1831 to 1852 and also taught law at Cumberland University.

Green received his law degree from Cumberland School of Law in 1893 and, thereafter, joined the Tennessee state bar. He operated his private practice in Nashville until he was elected to serve on the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1910. Throughout his career, he was reelected to serve four eight-year terms with the court and became the chief justice in 1923. The Scopes appeal (1926–27) proved to be his most notable case, even though he ultimately ruled on procedural, rather than constitutional, grounds. He served as a justice until his death on January 27, 1947.

Document Analysis

The opinion issued by the Supreme Court of Tennessee first notes Scopes’s guilty verdict and states that his appeal raises questions about the statute’s validity. In writing the majority opinion for the court, Green notes that the Butler Act’s language does not explicitly define the term “evolution.” He establishes that the court will accept the popular meaning of the term: evolution is “the theory which holds that man has developed from some pre-existing lower type.”

This clarification defeats Scopes’s first argument that the statute is too vague to be enforceable, as Green holds that the statute’s intent is specifically to prevent public schools from teaching the theory of evolution, even though its language refers more generally to “any theory that denies the story of the divine creation of man, as taught in the Bible.”

Next, the court denies that Scopes’s conviction violates the due process clauses of the Tennessee Constitution and the US Constitution. Citing several US Supreme Court cases as precedent, Green holds that, as a teacher employed and paid by the state, Scopes is contractually bound to carry out his job as prescribed by the state. Furthermore, since the Butler Act only applies to publicly funded schools and does not interfere with private dealings between individuals or corporations, it does not violate either due process clause. Finally, since the state may “prescribe the character and the hours of labor of the employees on its works, just as freely may it say what kind of work shall be performed in its service, what shall be taught in schools” without violating due process.

The court also addresses Scopes’s argument that the Butler Act conflicts with the educational clause and the religious preference clause of the Tennessee Constitution. The educational clause states in part that “it shall be the duty of the General Assembly in all future periods of this government, to cherish Literature and Science.” Scopes argues that, since evolution is now acknowledged by a preponderance of scientific opinion based on evidence, prohibiting its teaching violates this clause. Green notes that, while the educational clause has been mentioned in prior court opinions, it has never been used to invalidate a statute. Furthermore, he says, “In no case can the court directly compel the Legislature to perform its duty,” and it is not the court’s place to question the legislature. With respect to the religious preference clause, Green holds that the court cannot see how the prohibition on teaching evolution “gives preference to any religious establishment or mode of worship.”

Despite Green’s exposition on several constitutional questions, Scopes’s case was ultimately disposed of on a technicality. The jury found the defendant guilty, but trial judge John T. Raulston set the $100 fine himself. This violated the legal requirement that fines in excess of $50 must be set by a jury. Rather than remand the case to the lower court for a new trial to correct the error, the appellate court recommended that the attorney general dismiss the case in order to preserve the “peace and dignity of the State.”

Essential Themes

Although Chief Justice Green’s opinion addresses several constitutional questions raised in Scopes’s appeal, the Supreme Court of Tennessee ultimately avoided a broad ruling on constitutional grounds. Instead, Judge Raulston inadvertently gave the appellate court a way to dispose of this “bizarre case” without ruling on substantive questions regarding the teaching of science and religion: he violated Tennessee law by setting Scopes’s fine at $100, rather than allowing the jury to do so.

Unlike trial courts, appellate courts such as the Supreme Court of Tennessee and the US Supreme Court do not have juries. Instead, a panel of judges hears arguments from each side’s attorney; these arguments are limited to assertions of specific legal errors made during the trial. As a result, in order to fix the particular error found in the Scopes trial, the Supreme Court of Tennessee needed to send the case back to the lower court for a new trial, so that a new jury could set Scopes’s fine. Rather than repeat the circus of the prior trial, the appellate court recommended the case be dismissed.

In addition to Green’s official opinion, Justice Chambliss wrote a non-binding concurring opinion agreeing with the majority’s final decision, but interpreting the statute’s language to only prohibit teaching evolutionary theories that deny any divine involvement creation of man. Chambliss’s interpretation leaves room for teaching students about evolution in species other than man, and is more explicitly accepting of a nonliteral interpretation of the Bible’s account of creation. Finally, Justice McKinney filed a dissenting opinion, disagreeing with the majority’s decision and arguing that the Butler Act should be struck down as a violation of due process because its language is too vague to “inform those who are subject to it what conduct on their part will render them liable to its penalties.”

Following the dismissal of the Scopes case, Tennessee made no further efforts to enforce the Butler Act, although the law remained on the books. The US Supreme Court eventually settled the constitutionality of anti-evolution statutes in 1967, when it struck down a similar Arkansas law as violating the constitutionally required separation of church and state. Tennessee repealed the Butler Act that same year.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Adams, Noah. “Timeline: Remembering the Scopes Monkey Trial.” NPR. NPR, 5 July 2005. Web. 20 May 2014.
  • Ely, James W., ed. A History of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2002. Print.
  • Harrison, Maureen, & Steve Gilbert, eds. “The Modern Monkey Trial.” Great Decisions of the US Supreme Court. New York: Barnes, 2003. 127–50. Print.
  • Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. Cambridge: Basic, 1997. Print.
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