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May 5: Planning for the Scopes Trial

May 4, 2016

941A meeting of community leaders in Dayton, Tennessee, was held on this date in 1925 to plan a challenge to the state’s new Butler Act, which made it illegal to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution in a public school. The American Civil Liberties Union had advertised its willingness to give support to any teacher who would challenge the law, and the Daytonians saw it as an opportunity to put their town on the map. The ensuing trial, in which 24-year-old teacher and football coach John T. Scopes was defended by Clarence Darrow and prosecuted by a group led by populist politician William Jennings Bryan, included some outreach by Darrow to Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, the leading Talmudic scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, to seek his counsel about contradictions in the Bible. Another rabbi, Herman Rosenwasser (shown at right with a passage from Genesis), “actually traveled to Dayton for the proceedings,” writes Yair Rosenberg at Tablet. “Though uninvited, he so impressed the defense team that the ACLU’s lawyer Arthur Hays delivered the rabbi’s argument — that the Hebrew text of Genesis, properly translated, in fact supported the evolutionary narrative–in court.” Scopes was found guilty and fined $100. The well-known film about the trial, Inherit the Wind, was directed by Stanley Kramer and co-written by Jerome Lawrence (Schwartz). To see Spencer Tracy as Clarence Darrow, look below.

“Ginzberg and Rosenwasser were only a subset of the religious figures who supported the pro-evolution side of the Scopes case...” —Yair Rosenberg