March 21st 1925: Butler Act passed

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The trial sparked a nationwide debate over evolution and creationism

On this day in 1925, the Butler Act was signed into law by Tennessee Governor Austin Peay. The bill was introduced by farmer John Butler of the Tennessee State House of Representatives on January 21st and was immediately controversial. It banned school teachers from teaching evolution, and instead provided for the teaching of the Christian theory of creationism. Teachers who violated the law were to be fined a maximum of $500. Many protested that the law violated the 1st Amendment’s ban on the establishment of religion and its provision of free speech. The Butler Act has become infamous in history due to its challenge in the so-called ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’. The trial was prompted by the arrest of science teacher John Scopes, and drew the attention of the nation as it essentially put the theory of evolution on trial. The lawyers for the case were famed in their fields – Clarence Darrow for the defense and William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution. Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution but his conviction was reversed on a technicality. The Butler Act was not repealed until 1967.

 

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, 1925

Darrow (left) and Bryan (right)

The Butler Act and subsequent Scopes trial have become emblematic of a backward society’s rejection of scientific progress. There is always a period where it takes a while for people to accept the latest scientific discovery. Whilst Darwin’s theory of evolution was first advanced long before the Butler Act, it took a long time for people to reconcile this theory with their faith. Many saw the theory as explicitly contrary to the Biblical story of creationism – how God created the world in seven days. The Scopes trial was a rather extreme expression of this, and has since become infamous as an example of scientific ignorance. Now, people of faith tend to accept evolution and take the Creation story less literally – these seven ‘days’ could refer to seven eons, not the 24 period we think of today. This helps some reconcile science and faith. However, in some ways the Scopes trial is still being fought in the United States. There have been many attempts by conservative Republicans to introduce the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in schools, which is the idea that the world must have been created by an intelligent creature – this creature is, to all intents and purposes, the Christian God. Bills such as these do not hold up well under the establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment. However the struggle between religion and science persists.

 

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John Butler (1875 – 1952)

“I never had any idea my bill would make a fuss. I just thought it would become a law, and that everybody would abide by it and that we wouldn’t hear any more of evolution in Tennessee
– John Butler during the Scopes trial

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