Debate shows Scopes themes still alive

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 3, 2000

The first session was called &uot;The Scopes Trial: The Trial that is Still Being Tried.&uot; The session that followed only proved true the title of its predecessor.

Countless books have been written on the Scopes trial, which, in 1925, challenged Tennessee’s anti-evolution law. The trial even inspired a play, &uot;Inherit the Wind.&uot;

&uot;But ‘Inherit the Wind’ isn’t a historical account of the Scopes trial,&uot; said Richard Cornelius.

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And, he added, the playwrights never intended it to be.

Cornelius, an English professor at Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn., was the speaker for the first afternoon session at the 11th annual Natchez Literary Celebration. The second session, &uot;Current Legal Thinking about Issues Surrounding the Scopes Trial,&uot; was manned by a panel of legal experts in the fields of religious speech and church and state law.

Both sessions coincided with this year’s celebration theme of &uot;The Sacred South: Writings from the Bible Belt.&uot; The celebration began Thursday and will conclude today with events scheduled in the Natchez community center. The highlight of today’s lineup will be the presentation of the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Awards to playwright Beth Henley and author and historian David Sansing. The ceremony will take place at 10:30 a.m. with a book signing to follow at Temple B’Nai Israel.

Friday’s afternoon sessions, meantime, generated questions and stirred some debate among audience members.

Cornelius provided history and background of the Scopes trial, explaining that it was engineered by members of the Dayton community. The defendant, John Thomas Scopes, hadn’t actually taught evolution in his classroom and was hired to make a case for the American Civil Liberties Union.

The idea, Cornelius said, was for Scopes to be tried as a criminal and lose his case so it could be appealed to higher courts.

&uot;That would have given them a chance to philosophize,&uot; Cornelius said. &uot;You can philosophize better in the higher courts.&uot;

Scopes lost and was fined $100. The Tennessee Supreme Court later overturned Scopes’ conviction.

But arguments persist, even in modern-day Natchez.

Panelists Thomas C. Berg and Steven K. Green gave arguments in the second session that showed not only is the Scopes controversy still alive, but it exceeds the realms of evolution versus creationism.

Green is legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C. He said the debate is unnecessary. &uot;There is no reason to have to choose one side or the other,&uot; he said. &uot;Many religions don’t see a conflict between creationism and evolution.&uot;

Still, the religious concept of creationism should not be taught in schools, just as evolution shouldn’t be taught as a world view.

&uot;To teach one religious concept would be problematic,&uot; Green said.

Students of religious faiths other than Christianity are also in schools, Green said. A problem arises when only the Christian-based creationism is taught.

Berg, a religious speech expert who teaches at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., said religion should not be left out of schools all together.

&uot;I’m more concerned with religion becoming irrelevant,&uot; he said.

U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge E. Grady Jolly was the panel’s moderator. He has first-hand knowledge of the evolution versus creationism argument as his landmark decision in Louisiana’s Edwards vs. Aguillard case shot down a state statute requiring public schools to give evolution and creationism equal time in the classroom.

Audience members posed questions for more than 30 minutes after the panel discussion ended. Some audience members walked away with more questions than answers.

&uot;The argument wasn’t settled today,&uot; said Natchez resident Jim Wiggins, who teaches history at Copiah-Lincoln Community College, Natchez.

He said the panel brought up some good points.

&uot;It’s not the kind of historical issue that’s going to be settled to everyone’s satisfaction,&uot; he said.