Law Professor Doug Linder on the Legacy of the Scopes Monkey Trial

(CNN) -- Law professor Douglas Linder of the University of Missouri, Kansas City, joined Law Chat on Wednesday, July 12, to discuss the Scopes monkey trial. This week marks the 75th anniversary of the trial. CNN provided a typist for Linder. The following is an edited transcript of the chat:

Chat Moderator: Why do you believe the Scopes monkey trial was the trial of the century?

Doug Linder: I think the Scopes trial brought together a great cast of characters: three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan; America's best defense attorney, Clarence Darrow: and its most popular journalist, H. L. Mencken.

It was a trial about ideas, a contest between traditionalism, the faith of our fathers, and modernism, the idea that we test faith with our intellect. And it had what the New York Times called the most memorable event in Anglo-Saxon court history: Darrow's calling of William Jennings Bryan, the prosecutor, to the stand and examining him on his interpretation of the Bible. Seventy-five years later, this trial has stood the test of time. I wonder, in the year 2070, how many people will be talking about the O.J. Simpson trial.

Question from JrTy__D: If the trial were held today, what do you think the outcome would be?

Doug Linder: If the trial were held today, the law would be held unconstitutional as a violation of the U.S. Constitution's establishment clause in the First Amendment. The trial would thus have been decided on the motion to quash the indictment, and there would have been no witnesses and none of the entertainment that we got in 1925.

Question from Why: Why is it that we teach evolution in schools, but we can't teach about creation? Aren't they both technically theories?

Doug Linder: In a sense, evolution is a theory; the idea that the earth revolves around the sun is also, in some sense, a theory. The evidence in support of evolution from a scientific standpoint, is very compelling. The scientific evidence for creation as it is literally described in the Bible is virtually non-existent. One could argue, I suppose, that the Flat Earth Society should have an opportunity to provide its side of the story in a geography class, when the evidence that the earth is spherical is discussed, but I don't think that would be sound educational practice.

Chat Moderator: This trial actually came about in a surprising way -- can you tell us a bit about how John Scopes got involved in the trial?

Doug Linder: There is a misconception that John Scopes was hauled out of class one day while teaching evolution and thrown into jail. This is the suggestion from the play and movie, "Inherit the Wind." In fact, Scopes was recruited as a volunteer to test the constitutionality of the new Tennessee law banning evolution. He was not hauled out of a classroom, but hauled off of a tennis court.

Question from kem: Do you think the lessons of the Scopes trial will ever truly take? Or are we doomed to keep repeating the same religious theocracy cycle over and over?

Doug Linder: Galileo was tried and convicted in 1632 for writing that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around. It took the Vatican 200 years to remove Galileo's book from its list of banned books. That suggests to me that this debate could continue for a long time. I think that, to some extent, evolution challenges the idea that we are special as a species, and that that is a difficult notion for many people, especially Christian fundamentalists, to accept. And therefore, this debate is likely to go on in one form or another for a long time.

Chat Moderator: Can you describe some of the more colorful characters in this trial?

Doug Linder: Clarence Darrow was a nearly-70 year old attorney who was largely regarded as America's most eloquent defense attorney. He had the ability to transform almost any courtroom trial into a much larger context, and raised large social and political issues that captured the public imagination.

He also had a very good sense of humor, which sometimes got him into trouble, as in the Scopes case, when complaining to the judge after his request to introduce scientific expert testimony had been rejected said, "Why is it that all of our requests are rejected?" The judge answered, "I hope you do not mean to reflect upon the Court?" Darrow replied, "Well, Your Honor has the right to hope."

H. L. Mencken was the reporter who played a large role in the trial, and is well-known as one of America's most colorful, acerbic, and in his own way, prejudiced reporters, but his colorful reporting added greatly to our understanding of the trial.

William Jennings Bryan was a three-time failed presidential candidate who, in the years preceding the Scopes trial, had transformed himself into a sort of fundamentalist pope. He campaigned against evolution, at one time offering to pay $100 to anyone who personally could prove that he descended from a monkey.

Question from Felinity: Can we still challenge laws we believe are unconstitutional in the way that John Scopes did?

Doug Linder: Yes, we can challenge laws in the way Scopes did. If one is injured by an allegedly unconstitutional act of the state, one can normally bring a challenge to the act and have a court resolve the issue.

Question from Wayne: It is important to note, though, that the lessons were not learned from the Scopes trial itself. Scopes was convicted and the Tennessee law stood for many years.

Doug Linder: Scopes was convicted; in fact, Clarence Darrow asked the jury to convict his client because he wanted to appeal the issue to a higher court and have the constitutionality of the law decided. If Scopes had been acquitted, no such appeal could have been made. Forty-three years later, in 1968, the Supreme Court finally decided in a case out of Arkansas, that laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution violated the First Amendment. Tennessee itself had repealed its own evolution ban the year before, 1967.

Chat Moderator: Was John Scopes pleased or disappointed with the outcome? Do you think he regretted his involvement?

Doug Linder: He was looking for a somewhat more serious discussion of the issue than actually came out of Dayton. He was somewhat dismayed at the carnival-like atmosphere that surrounded the trial, and unlike many of the other trial participants, did not seem to revel in the publicity.

Question from Seagate-CNN: Teaching evolution is a science, and that is the loophole that is used to teach it. But will creation ever have a loophole, or will it always fall under the separation of church and state?

Doug Linder: Any avowedly religious doctrine may, of course, be taught in private schools or in churches, but anything in the curriculum of the public schools must have a secular, that is, non-religious, purpose, or it will violate the First Amendment.

Chat Moderator: What other trials have challenged ideas the way that this one did?

Doug Linder: Many trials have challenged ideas; the Amistad trial, to name one, in 1839 and 1840 challenged certain ideas we had about slaves and black people. Many trials challenge our ideas, I'm sure, including modern trials such as the Rodney King trial, which may have challenged some notions we had about police interaction with citizens. The list could go on and on.

Chat Moderator: How did people outside Tennessee and around the world view this trial?

Doug Linder: In general, people in the North and in Europe were somewhat amazed that such a trial could take place. For many of these people, evolution was considered a fact. President Woodrow Wilson, for example, said in 1922, he found it surprising that anyone at this late date could question the validity of the theory of evolution. In the South, however, where fundamentalism was much more prevalent, there was a great deal of sympathy for what Tennessee did. Fifteen Southern states were considering similar anti-evolution bans at the time of the trial.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

Doug Linder: The trial probably had its greatest effect in the success of Darrow in turning the trial into a national biology lesson through the prepared statements of his scientific experts, which were distributed to the press, and he succeeded in reversing momentum toward bans on teaching evolution. Only two states of the 15 that were considering such bans ultimately adopted them.