Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The law, "AN ACT prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of Tennessee, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, and to provide penalties for the violations thereof" (Tenn. HB 185, 1925) specifically provided:
- "That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals."
It additionally outlined that an offending teacher would be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined between $100 and $500 for each offense.
By the terms of the statute, it could be argued, it was not illegal to teach that apes descended from protozoa, to teach the mechanisms of variation and natural selection, or to teach the prevailing scientific theories of geology or the age of the Earth. It did not even require that the Genesis story be taught. It prohibited only the teaching that man had descended from a lower order of animals, or any other theory denying that Man was created by God as reported in Genesis. However the author of the law, a Tennessee farmer named John Washington Butler, specifically intended that it would prohibit the teaching of evolution. He was later was reported to have said that, "No, I didn't know anything about evolution when I introduced it. I'd read in the papers that boys and girls were coming home from school and telling their fathers and mother that the Bible was all nonsense."
The law was challenged by the ACLU in the famed Scopes trial, in which a Tennessee teacher agreed to teach the that humans were descended from apes in violation of the statute. Scopes was convicted, and the Tennessee Supreme Court ultimately found the law to be constitutional under the Constitution of Tennessee, because:
- "We are not able to see how the prohibition of teaching the theory that man has descended from a lower order of animals gives preference to any religious establishment or mode of worship. So far as we know, there is no religious establishment or organized body that has in its creed or confession of faith any article denying or affirming such a theory." Scopes v. State 289 S.W. 363, 367 (Tenn. 1927).
Although the Court found that the Act was constitutional, it reversed the conviction on a technicality, and the case was not retried. During the trial, Butler said that he "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."
The law remained on the books until 1967, when a dismissed teacher complained that it violated his First Amendment right to free speech. Fearing another courtroom fiasco, the Tennessee legislature repealed the law.
- "Author of the Law Surprised by Fuss" New York Times (18 July 1925), page 1.
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