Rhea County Courthouse plays host to Scopes Monkey Trial

THE WASHINGTON POST – Almost a century later, the judge’s bench is the same.

The rows of honey-coloured spectator chairs are the same. And the arguments, the ones that lawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan thundered at each other during a trial that riveted the nation, are certainly the same.

“Darwinists said you can believe in evolution and in the divine creation at the same time,” Bryan told jurors in a drawl.

“Well, Darwinists may believe in the creator, but they don’t believe He created man.” “Soon, soon,” Darrow warned his antagonist, “you will try to force your own religion upon the minds of men.”

Every summer, the red-bricked, clock-towered Rhea County Courthouse again plays host to what long ago became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial.

It’s a uniquely relevant reenactment given how the debate over government’s role in science and religion roared on.

“You hear the ghosts echo in the walls as you stand in there and said those very words that Bryan and Darrow exchanged,” said Rick Dye, a local who has repeatedly played the skeptical, suspendered Darrow.

Here’s how it all began.

Rhea County Courthouse. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

In 1925, Tennessee passed a law prohibiting its public schools from teaching human evolution. George Rappleyea, who ran a coal company in the small central town of Dayton, learned that the American Civil Liberties Union was offering to cover the legal fees of a teacher willing to test the statute.

In a monumental public relations blunder, he viewed the offer as a way to draw attention to Dayton.

But he ran into problems when he failed to recruit the high school’s biology teacher. So Rappleyea turned to John Thomas Scopes, a recent college graduate and occasional substitute teacher. Scopes thought the law was bad and agreed to challenge it. Darrow, already a famous attorney, agreed to defend him, while Bryan, an equally prominent statesman and orator, would represent Tennessee.

Rappleyea was elated; he figured the faceoff would bring tourists and notoriety. The tourists were fleeting, though.

The notoriety – for better or worse, but mostly for worse – has lingered. Starting with newspaper coverage of the case that year, with dispatches’ frequent mentions of “yokels”, through the 1960 film Inherit the Wind, which turned locals into an angry mob, all the way up to a 2005 Daily Show bit labelled Evolution Schmevolution, outsiders have controlled most of the narrative.

Since 1988, the reenactment has been the town’s way of wresting back some of its history. Most performances during Dayton’s Scopes Festival draw a packed courtroom.

And as the two central characters spar over facts vs faith, everybody scooches forward on their seat to hear.

“Can you not answer my question?” Darrow presses at one point, having actually called Bryan to the stand as a religion expert.

“You cannot judge the length of my answer by the length of your question,” Bryan retorted. The jury always returns its verdict in just nine minutes, convicting Scopes.

Which is when he speaks for the first time.

“Your honour, I feel I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute,” he declared.