Rhea County Courthouse
1475 Market St
Dayton, Tennessee 37321
The Evolution of Justice
In March of 1925, the state of Tennessee passed the Butler Act, which banned the teaching of evolution in schools. The nascent American Civil Liberties Union objected. The civil rights organization enlisted John Scopes, a local high school science teacher, to challenge the law. Scopes was then arrested for teaching evolution, and he went on trial in the summer of 1925.
The trial was a national sensation, the first to be broadcast live on radio. Taking place at the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee, it featured two of the leading advocates of the day. Clarence Darrow, on behalf of the ACLU, was seeking to show that the law was unconstitutional, as it went against the separation of church and state. William Jennings Bryan, a noted orator, and former presidential candidate argued the state’s case. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, although that verdict was reversed by a higher court. However, the Butler Act itself was deemed constitutional by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Nonetheless, the debate surrounding the trial effectively discouraged states from prohibiting the teaching of evolution, thus cementing its significance in U.S. history.
The courthouse itself is a restored Romanesque Revival-Italian villa-style courthouse built in 1891. The Scopes Trial courtroom contains the original judge’s bench, four tables, jury chairs, and spectator seats. In the basement, a newly-refurbished museum showcases exhibits and touchscreens serving to educate visitors on the context of the trial.