Tennessee Legislature might try Scopes again Creation: In Nashville, lawmakers are considering making it illegal to teach evolution as "a fact" in the state's public schools.

March 08, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DAYTON, Tenn. -- When the town fathers decided in 1925 to challenge a ban on the teaching of evolution, Frances Gabbert's daddy summoned a young man named Scopes to his drugstore.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, some Tennessee lawmakers are looking to repeat history. A proposed ban on the teaching of evolution as "fact" is now under consideration in the state Capitol in Nashville.

The legislation has raised concerns about academic freedom, parental rights and government authority.

The debate pits scientists against proponents of a biblical theory of how the world began; the American Civil Liberties Union against fundamentalist Christians.

The issues are almost the same as those debated by William Jennings Bryan and Clarence S. Darrow in a steamy, second-floor courtroom 71 years ago in this central Tennessee town.

The trial tested the constitutionality of a law that forbade the teaching of anything but a "divine creation" theory.

Substitute biology teacher John T. Scopes volunteered to be the test case.

These days, the evolution issue is symbolic of the legislative influence of religious conservatives.

Last month, the state Senate supported a resolution urging the posting of the Ten Commandments in homes, businesses, schools and the workplace.

Neither Gov. Don Sundquist, a Republican, nor the state's top school officials have voiced their opinion of the evolution proposal.

Tennessee's attorney general has ruled both bills unconstitutional. ''TC Mrs. Gabbert, a retired school teacher, and others say legislators are trying to correct a problem that doesn't exist. The state already mandates the teaching of evolution as "scientific theory."

"They're trying to stir up something," says the 79-year-old widow, whose father, Frank E. Robinson, helped engineer the convening of the Scopes trial in Dayton.

"If they polled their constituents, they would agree it's a lot of hooey."

L Not everyone in Mrs. Gabbert's hometown feels the same way.

Ed Emens, the president of the Dayton Chamber of Commerce, sees nothing wrong with the intent of the bill -- to ensure that evolution is taught as a "theory."

"To my knowledge, it's never been proven," says Mr. Emens, publisher of the town newspaper, the Herald-News. "Even when we put on the trial here."

The attitude of Mr. Emens and others like him illustrates how the evolution bill can resonate with the public seven decades after Bryan and Darrow faced off in the Rhea County Courthouse.

Trial put Dayton on the map

When the Scopes trial began in the summer of 1925, Dayton was a sleepy southern town of about 2,000. People worked in the hosiery mills, the blast furnaces of Cumberland Coal and Iron or at the Farmers Milling Co.

The trial -- the first to be broadcast daily -- put Dayton on the map. And in the history books.

But it also subjected the people of Dayton to the blistering attacks of H. L. Mencken, who chronicled the trial for The Evening Sun.

While he delighted in the town's charm, likening it to an attractive Westminster or Belair, he derided its citizens as "yokels" and chastised their "buffoonery."

He was so disliked that when Mr. Mencken asked to join other out-of-town diners at Frances Gabbert's childhood home, her aunt replied:

"No, and just consider that I've pinned a piece of mistletoe to my coat tail," Mrs. Gabbert said, invoking her aunt's words.

Today, Mrs. Gabbert lives in the same brick Victorian she grew up in, but the town is home to about 6,000.

Rhea County has more than 100 churches. The biggest employer is the manufacturer of La-Z-Boy recliners. A proposed zoning plan is the topic of conversation at the Dayton Coffee Shop.

The town hosts a Scopes Festival every July and re-creates the trial in the restored 1891 courthouse, where today handwritten court dockets are kept in leather-bound books and juries are selected from slips of papers pulled from a fish bowl.

Free exchange of ideas

The corridor leading to the office of Prof. Kurt S. Wise is lined with display cases of fossils, snakeskins, birds and skulls -- an evolutionary primer under glass.

He teaches at Bryan College, the evangelical Christian school in Dayton whose hilltop site was chosen by its namesake.

The Harvard-trained paleontologist first learned about the evolution bill when the British Broadcasting Corporation called to interview him. Professor Wise is a teacher of future teachers. He also is a creationist.

"A young-age creationist, which is to to say, I believe the Earth is only thousands of years old," said the 36-year-old scientist, "what the Bible constrains the age of the world to be."

As a teacher, Dr. Wise objects to the punitive aspect of the legislation -- a teacher could be dismissed for teaching evolution a "fact."

As a creationist, Dr. Wise supports efforts to develop a teaching curriculum for the biblical version of the world's beginnings. "What would benefit us all would be to move toward something our Founding Fathers wanted a free exchange of ideas," says Dr. Wise.

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