Tennessee's Butler Act Criminalized Teaching Evoltuion

The Scopes trial jury

New York Times / Getty Images

The Butler Act was a Tennessee law that made it illegal for public schools to teach evolution. Enacted on March 13, 1925, it remained in force for 40 years. The act also led to one of the most famous trials of the 20th century, pitting advocates of creationism against those who believed in evolution.

No Evolution Here

The Butler Act was introduced on January 21, 1925, by John Washington Butler, a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. It passed nearly unanimously in the House, by a vote of 71 to 6. The Tennessee Senate approved it by nearly as overwhelming a margin, 24 to 6. The act itself, was very specific in its prohibition against any public schools in the state teaching evolution, stating:

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.​

The act, signed into law by Tennessee Gov. Austin Peay on March 21, 1925, also made it a misdemeanor for any educator to teach evolution. A teacher found guilty of doing so would be fined between $100 and $500. Peay, who died just two years later, said he signed the law to combat the decline of religion in schools, but he did not believe it would ever be enforced.

He was wrong.

The Scopes Trial

That summer, the ACLU sued the state on behalf of science teacher John T. Scopes, who had been arrested and charged with violating the Butler Act. Known in its day as "The Trial of the Century," and later as the "Monkey Trial," the Scopes trial—heard in the Criminal Court of Tennessee—pitted two famous lawyers against one another: three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and renowned trial attorney Clarence Darrow for the defense.

The surprisingly brief trial began on July 10, 1925, and ended just 11 days later on July 21, when Scopes was found guilty and fined $100. As the first trial broadcast live on the radio in the U.S., it focused attention on the debate over creationism versus evolution

The End of the Act

The Scopes trial—sparked by the Butler Act—crystallized the debate and drew battle lines between those who favored evolution and those who believed in creationism. Just five days after the end of the trial, Bryan died—some said from a broken heart caused by his losing the case. The verdict was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which upheld the act a year later.

The Butler Act remained the law in Tennessee until 1967, when it was repealed. Anti-evolution statutes were ruled unconstitutional in 1968 by the Supreme Court in Epperson v Arkansas. The Butler Act may be defunct, but the debate between creationist and evolutionary proponents continues unabated to this day.

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Scoville, Heather. "Tennessee's Butler Act Criminalized Teaching Evoltuion." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/the-butler-act-1224753. Scoville, Heather. (2020, August 26). Tennessee's Butler Act Criminalized Teaching Evoltuion. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-butler-act-1224753 Scoville, Heather. "Tennessee's Butler Act Criminalized Teaching Evoltuion." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-butler-act-1224753 (accessed March 23, 2023).