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Kim Simac vs. Clarence Darrow: How Wisconsin Recalls and Miss USA Mirror Scopes Monkey Trial

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Thank you fellow cheesehead Kim Simac for reminding me how important it will be to vote in Wisconsin's nine-state Senate recall elections on August 9. It will Tea Party candidates like Simac and the ghost of William Jennings Bryan versus Miss Universe and the ghost of Clarence Darrow.

In case you missed the Donald Trump/NBC Universal's Miss USA contest this summer, it (like Simac) reminds us that the debate over teaching religion in public schools is going strong.

2011 Miss USA Committee: Should evolution be taught in schools?

Miss Washington: As far as little theories and what not, I probably want to stay away from those.

Miss Alabama: I do not believe in evolution. I do not believe it should be taught in schools.

Are you stunned? I was. But it turns out I hadn't paid attention in high-school history class when we learned about the Monkey Trial. Take this short quiz and see if you remember it correctly.

  • The trial centered on a public school's right to teach evolution. (correct)
  • That verdict: it wasn't illegal to teach evolution. (wrong)
  • The defendant was a regular classroom teacher. (wrong)

For my sake, and maybe yours, here's a primer. In 1925, 24-year-old John T. Scopes was working in Dayton, Tennessee, as the Rhea County High School football coach and occasional substitute teacher. One day while substitute teaching, he introduced the theory of evolution to a biology class. In doing so, Scopes (always pictured wearing a Panama hat) broke a new Tennessee law called the Butler Act, which made it illegal to teach children about evolution.

The newly formed American Civil Liberties Union was looking for a volunteer to bring national attention to the debate over teaching creationism versus Darwinism, and when asked, Scopes agreed to be indicted (an exchange that seems history-making itself).

Thus, substitute teacher Scopes was formally charged with the crime and brought to trial, an 11-day media circus described by the New York Times as the most amazing court scene in Anglo-Saxon history. The trial drew so many spectators that it was moved to the courthouse lawn during the hellish heat of summer.

It was Batman vs. Superman.

The prosecution was led by a lawyer who had already fought to cut off public funding to schools that taught the theory of evolution -- William Jennings Bryan, a southern Christian, three-time presidential candidate and prohibitionist.

The defense hired Clarence Darrow, a northern agnostic, civil libertarian, and successful attorney who had recently saved teenage "thrill killers" Leopold and Loeb from the death penalty.

Bryan won. Six days later, he died, either through natural selection or God's will. It would be another 42 years before the Butler Act was struck dead by Tennessee lawmakers. (Scopes, by the way, paid a $100 fine, left the classroom forever, and became an earth scientist.)

Miss Oregon: Every theory of how we came to be here should get a shout out.

Eighty-six years later, the debate continues, its central ideologies as old and thoughtful as Copernicus, as new and thoughtless as Simac and Michele Bachmann, as inert as rosary beads, as combustible as pure hydrogen.

Miss Indiana: I think a lot of people would have an issue if evolution was taught in school.

Miss Wyoming: Evolution is kinda touchy...

What we're talking about, of course, is fear and intolerance. Presidential candidate Bachmann and Wisconsin state senate candidate Simac want public school science teachers to tell students that a Christian god created the universe using His day planner. (Monday: Create Earth; buy nightlight. Tuesday: Separate water and air. Wednesday: Landscape; Advil!!!)

Fearful parents continue to take similar fights to the schools, pushing to ban books that contain worldviews other than their own or facts they'd rather not acknowledge. Next month, the American Library Association will spotlight the most-challenged books of 2011. (2010 included the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, which was pulled from the Menifee, California, Union School District after a parent complained that the dictionary defined oral sex; and Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, which was challenged but retained at the Easton Pennsylvania School District when a parent claimed the book promoted economic fallacies and socialist ideology.)

We all tolerate our children being exposed to some worldviews other than our own -- American-style karma (think My Name is Earl), acupuncture, race-car driving as a sport. But we still confuse strength with rigidity, which is of questionable prudence as the percentage of Americans who say they are Christians decreases.

Miss Iowa: It could be available as an elective, I think.

Miss Texas: I think it would be interesting to learn about.

Miss California: I was taught evolution in my high school growing up and I do believe in it. I'm a huge science geek.

Did these women all attend school in the same country?

In the end, the 2011 Miss USA judges chose the fittest contestant for the crown. The winner was Miss California. Beauty pageant judges accomplished what Clarence Darrow could not: evolution, American style.

Let's hope Wisconsin voters will accomplish the same on August 9.

TIME magazine recently named Carolyn Bucior's Sub Culture, Three Years in Education's Dustiest Corner one of the summer's best education books.