Scopes 2: Arkansas' Creationism Trial

Button of a half-eaten banana

hide captionArkansas Gov. Frank White signed the creationism bill, then later acknowledged he had not read all of it. He was depicted thereafter by George Fisher, an editorial cartoonist for the Arkansas Gazette, by a half-eaten banana.

Jeffrey Katz covered the creationism trial as the Little Rock correspondent for The Commercial Appeal, Memphis' morning newspaper. He is now the senior supervising producer for NPR.org.

The mysteries of the origin of life are usually discussed in Arkansas in church or a science class. But for two weeks in 1981 they were debated in a federal courtroom in downtown Little Rock.

At issue was a law requiring public schools to give "balanced treatment" to evolution and creationism whenever either was taught. It was the first such law in the country when the Arkansas legislature adopted it in March of that year.

An ACLU lawyer who opposed the law dubbed it Scopes 2. Clearly, the question of how life began wasn't settled in the famous 1925 trial in Dayton, Tenn., and it boiled up again in Arkansas six decades later. While the Arkansas case obviously didn't have the same historic impact of the so-called Monkey Trial, it did foreshadow battles between some scientists and fundamentalists that continue to this day.

Actually, the Scopes 2 nickname didn't quite fit this particular case. For one thing, Arkansas already had its version of the Scopes trial in 1968. That's when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state's ban on teaching evolution. And those who reject evolution were using a different tactic in the 1980s, putting as much focus on their belief in creationism as their opposition to evolution.

Creationism, or creation-science as it was referred to in Arkansas' law, is the theory that the Earth is a few thousand years old, that plants and animals only change within fixed limits of their original forms and that humans were created separately from other creatures. That puts it at odds with evolution, and the theory that the Earth is billions of years old, species evolve in form throughout time and humans descended from creatures of lower order such as apes.

Supporters of creationism hoped that Arkansas would be the first of many states to adopt a law requiring "balanced treatment" for creationism and evolution. Indeed, it was prepared as model legislation by an opponent of evolution from Anderson, S.C.

As a young reporter operating a one-man bureau in Little Rock, I watched the bill's swift progress with fascination. Religious conservatives were flexing their muscles, four months after Republican Frank White defeated the incumbent Democratic governor. (It was the last electoral defeat in Bill Clinton's career.)

The bill sailed through both houses of the Democratic-controlled Arkansas legislature in March 1981 with such speed that some lawmakers later admitted they didn't know what they had voted on. White signed it into law. He then touched off a furor by acknowledging that although he'd been briefed on the legislation, he hadn't actually read the bill and was unfamiliar with some of its provisions.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court, charging that the law unconstitutionally promoted religion, abridged academic freedom and was impermissibly vague. It all sounded familiar to the ACLU's national founder, Roger Baldwin, who had recruited John Scopes and his attorney, Clarence Darrow, for the original test case on evolution. "Here's where I came in," Baldwin said.

Against this backdrop, Arkansans who opposed the creationism legislation fretted that the trial would give the state bad publicity. The year before, it had received national coverage when Cuban refugees fled the military base where they were temporarily housed and rioted in the streets, a Titan 2 missile exploded inside an Air Force silo and the state sweltered in record heat.

Many reporters came from across the country to cover the trial and some arrived from overseas. It was heady stuff to report on this piece of history as a cub reporter, filing stories every day that were picked up by many Scripps Howard newspapers across the country. As we filed into the courtroom on that unseasonably warm day of Dec. 7, 1981, we wondered if we might see the next Williams Jennings Bryan or Clarence Darrow.

But there were no grand or eloquent speeches as the plaintiffs made their case. Some of the nation's most renowned theologians and scientists who testified against the law — including paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould — barely mentioned the state. The educators who testified, who were mostly local, refrained from casting Arkansas into a bad light.

They all testified that scientific creationism was a contradiction in terms. They drew a link between Christian fundamentalism and the law, comparing creationism to a literal interpretation of the Bible. Yes, they said, evolution is a theory, but it is a legitimate science and creationism is not.

When a deputy attorney general wondered why a relatively young substance appears on a rock scientists say was formed when the Earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago, a geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, shrugged it off as a "tiny mystery." He said that was overwhelmed by evidence that the Earth was billions of years old.

The states' witnesses generally acknowledged that creation-science paralleled the Book of Genesis, but said there was scientific proof as well. They portrayed the scientific community as insular and elitist for dismissing evidence presented by creationists.

Some of those who testified in behalf of the law made headlines in inadvertent ways. Norman Geisler of the Dallas Theological Seminary said that believing God created the world is not religious unless God is worshipped. But nothing he said got more attention than when he said that unidentified flying objects were a Satanic manifestation.

Another state's witness, N.C. Wickramasinghe, an astronomer from Wales, dismissed the tenets of evolution as "ridiculous." But he mostly drew attention for saying organisms from space created life on Earth. And he actually undercut the law's supporters by testifying "no rational scientist" would believe the Earth's geology could be explained by reference to a worldwide flood or that the Earth was less than 1 million years old.

U.S. District Judge William R. Overton struck down the law on Jan. 5, 1982, saying the law's purpose was to advance religion in public schools. His 38-page ruling — reported on in the front page of The New York Times and many publications worldwide — said creation-science lacked scientific merit or educational value as science, and that it would unconstitutionally entangle the state with religion.

The controversy continues. Policymakers in at least 16 states are now debating how to teach students about the origins and diversity of life on Earth. Perhaps some scientists believe as Wayne Moyer did during Arkansas' creationism trial. Moyer, the executive director of the National Association of Biology Teachers, said mainstream scientists had only themselves to blame when legislatures adopt laws to inhibit the teaching of evolution. "We've done a bad job of teaching evolutionary theory," he said. "We've not made it clear this is a tentative explanation which works."

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