Butler Act

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The Butler Act was a 1925 Tennessee law prohibiting public school teachers to deny the Biblical account of man’s origin. It was enacted as Tennessee Code Annotated Title 49 (Education) Section 1922 . The law also prevented the teaching of the evolution of man from what it referred to as lower orders of animals in place of the Biblical account.


Provisions of the law

The law, "AN ACT prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, 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:

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 evolved, or any other theory denying that man was created by God as recorded 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 later was reported to have said, "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 mothers that the Bible was all nonsense." After reading copies of William Jennings Bryan's lecture "Is the Bible True?" as well as Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, Butler decided evolution was dangerous.


The law was challenged by the ACLU in the famed Scopes Trial, in which John Scopes, a high school sports coach who occasionally acted as a substitute teacher, agreed to be arrested on a charge of having taught evolution, and was nominally served a warrant on May 5, 1925. Scopes was indicted on May 25 and ultimately convicted; on appeal the Tennessee Supreme Court found the law to be constitutional under the Tennessee State Constitution, 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)

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