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The Scopes Trial

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Evan Boiko
HIS 112-005
10-16-11
The Scopes Trial

The Scopes Trial was one of the most famous trials in the history of the United States due to the intense passion and concern that people had for it. The defense was defending personal freedom and democracy while the prosecution imposed on these values. In the end, even though John Scopes and his defense team lost the trial, they won in the long run by influencing decisions made in the future regarding free speech in the classroom and what teachers were required to teach. Many people had intense feelings for the Scopes Trial. These feelings and concern people had for the trial made it one of the most famous trials in America. Some people simplified the trial to Darwin vs. the Bible. This issue made the Scopes trial a large concern to many because Darwin undermined the literal reading of the bible. Darwin's theory of evolution more specifically struck at two major parts of the Bible, the seven days of creation story, and the story of Adam and Eve and how they were the first humans on earth. Many people also considered Darwin's theory to be a "moral outrage" because of how the process of natural selection worked. For natural selection to occur, the unfit of the species were killed off in extremely large numbers. With this information, Darwin was suggesting that "nature revealed a God who was cruel and wasteful or absent altogether." This particular notion created strong opposition to Darwin's theory because of the possibility that there is no God, or if there is, God is cruel because of all the death that God let happen. The contradictions to the bible by Darwin's theory of evolution led to a clash of beliefs between Modernist Protestants, who had adopted Darwin's theory, and Revivalist Protestants, who believed in the literal reading of the bible. Another factor in making the Scopes trial as big of a concern as it had been, was the idea of majoritarianism. The majority of Tennesseans were anti-evolutionists. Because anti-evolutionists had the majority in legislation, they were able to pass bills like the Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution because it deviated from the teachings of the Bible. This prohibition from teaching Darwin's theory of evolution conflicted with individual liberty. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) felt that this law violated civil liberties because the ACLU and John Scopes believed that teachers should be able to teach what they wanted. This prompted the ACLU to fight "against the rule of the majority." The clash of science and religion along with civil liberty and majoritarianism helped this trial to evoke intense feelings of passion and concern from the American people. In the Scopes trial, both sides claimed to be defending personal freedom and democracy, however, only Scopes and the defense truly was defending these values. The goal of the defense was to get the Butler Act repealed on account of it being unconstitutional. The defense referenced the clause in the U.S. Constitution that stated how "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The defense's attempt to appeal with this clause failed because the wording only included Congress and it was ruled that the clause only applied to federal legislation, not to laws made by specific states. Because this clause was not respected by state governments, individual states were free to "conduct an inquisition, outlaw unpopular religions, or establish a particular church." Because the phrasing of the clause only included Congress and not state legislation, the state was free to pass laws like the Butler Act. Laws like the Butler Act would be deemed unconstitutional if state legislation was held at the same standards and rules that Congress had to follow. Once the defense lost their first argument, they then declared that the Butler Act, violated the principle of the separation between church and state. Clarence Darrow stated that "By enshrining the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible in the law, the act violated both the establishment clause's broad restriction against any religious legislation and its more restricted meaning of not giving preference to any one sect." Darrow argued that the Butler Act was merely an attempt of the state to force the fundamentalist Bible on to the people of Tennessee. He said that this attempt was unconstitutional and he implied that this was the first step in the fundamentalists' plan to create a state religion and in turn, eliminate all opposition to the state religion both inside the classroom and out. However, Tennesseans interpreted the strictures against religious establishment to suggest "that the state could give no particular preference to one Protestant sect or denomination over another." Nobody had thought that the state should institute a "wall of separation" as Thomas Jefferson had said, "between church and state", meaning all religions, instead of Protestantism being the one exception to this separation. In this case, the defense was defending personal freedom and democracy by trying to hold Protestantism to the same standards that the state held to other religions. By the state letting Protestantism be an exception to the wall of separation between church and state, the state was not upholding personal freedom and democracy by appealing to one religion more than others. The prosecution claimed to be defending personal freedom and democracy when they claimed that religious liberty was threatened more by Scopes teaching evolution in contrast to the Butler Act. William Jennings Bryan believed that teaching evolution was an attack on children's religious beliefs more than anything else. He supported this point with how parents have complained to him that "state schools were being used to undermine the religious faith of their children." In refute to this point made by Bryan, the defense called students of Scopes's to the stand. One student that was called to testify was Harry Shelton. Once Darrow had confirmed that Scopes had taught Darwin's theory of evolution to Shelton, Darrow asked Shelton if he left after Scopes told Shelton that all forms of life begin with a single cell. To that, Shelton said "No, sir." This proved Bryan's point to be invalid and was evidence of how the prosecution was falsely defending personal freedom and democracy. By holding the state legislation in Tennessee to the same standards as Congress as well as trying to establish a wall of separation between all religions and the state, the defense was defending personal freedom and democracy. Even though the prosecution claimed to be defending personal freedom and democracy, their claims were proved to be false because of the testimonies of Scopes's students. Even though Scopes and the defense lost the trial, they won by changing laws in the future in their favor. For example, Darrow argued how the Butler Act was unconstitutional on many levels. First, he argued that it violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because of the establishment clause included by James Madison. The clause stated that Congress cannot make laws that infringe on the personal freedom of religion. It was determined that the clause didn't apply to state legislations because the way it was phrased applied only to Congress. Darrow also argued that the Butler Act violated the wall of separation between church and state. Once Darrow had made that point, it was proven to be void because of the way Tennesseans interpreted restrictions against establishment of religion in the law. The defense went on to lose the case but that wasn't the end of the issue of different rules for state legislation and federal legislation. This issue was regarded when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified and added into the United States Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment stated that, "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." With the Fourteenth Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court could "begin to apply the First Amendment's strictures against religious legislation to the states." If this had been the case during the Scopes Trial, the Butler Act would have been deemed unconstitutional and would have been repealed. Despite the outcome of the trial, Scopes and the defense won in the long run because the Fourteenth Amendment was established and would prevent another bill like the Butler Act from ever being ratified because it would be judged to be unconstitutional. The Scopes trial had intense passion and concern associated with it because of the conflicts of ideas contained in it. More specifically the clash of science and religion and the clash of civil liberties and majoritarianism. While both the prosecution and defense claimed to be defending personal freedom and democracy, only the defense was genuinely defending these sacred values seeing as the prosecution's attempt to defend these values was a failure. The prosecution failed because their argument was proven false by testimonies from Scopes's students. Although the trial found Scopes to be guilty, he ultimately won when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified. Had the Fourteenth Amendment been in place during the Scopes Trial, he wouldn't have been found guilty because the establishment clause that states that Congress can't make laws respecting establishments of religion. This clause would have applied to individual states with the Fourteenth Amendment. Now that the Fourteenth Amendment is in place, it will deem any other bills like the Butler Act unconstitutional and make sure a second Butler Act is not passed. With the Fourteenth Amendment, there can be no more Butler Acts which proves that the defense won in the end.

Works Cited
Moran, Jeffrey P. The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002.

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