More than half a century after John T. Scopes, a young teacher in Dayton, Tenn., was fined $100 for teaching evolution to his high school students in violation of state law, two instructors here have been ordered to suspend plans for putting on an eighth grade production of "Inherit the Wind," a well-known play about the 1925 Scopes "monkey" trial.
Opposition to the production has not come from anyone outside the school, but from administrators who say they are afraid a controversy could develop if the play were allowed to be staged in this Bible Belt section of Harford County, near the Pennsylvania line.
The administrators say the teaching of evolution once again is controversial and they have suggested the teachers find another play.
As it did 57 years ago in Scopes' case, the American Civil Liberties Union has taken up the cause of free speech and is supporting teachers Thomas Berg and Virginia Huller in their battle to produce the play with their class of 27 "talented and gifted" students.
If the ironies "weren't so tragic, they are delicious," said Maryland ACLU executive director John Roemer. "We're backing courageous teachers for putting on a play about courageous teachers."
After the ACLU agreed to represent the teachers last week, School Superintendent Alfonso A. Roberty said he would convene a panel of middle school supervisors and principals to review the matter. As the ACLU prepared to take the case to court, Roberty acknowledged his views were unlikely to change. His major concern, he said, had been to keep the students from getting caught in the middle of an adult dispute. "I wanted to avoid a controversy," he said. "We have in fact created more controversy."
The administrators' action also troubles one of the play's authors. Said Robert E. Lee, coauthor with Jerome Lawrence of the play written in 1951 in response to McCarthyism, "We wrote the play because of exactly this kind of restriction. That's what the play is about; not the Bible but freedom of thought and freedom of expression of thought. If you're not gonna teach it in eighth grade, I don't know where the hell you're gonna teach it."
Over the years, he said, the play has produced half a dozen academic controversies. It was banned in Illinois, and a New England school teacher was fired for putting it on. These were "isolated cases," he said from his home in Encino, Calif. The current controversy is markedly different, he said.
"If some kooky parent raises objections, that's one thing." said Lee. "But when the establishment starts to edit itself, that's more dangerous."
Superintendent Roberty said he took the action as a preventive measure, for fear a local parents' group would find fault with the drama. "While he may be out in sunny California," said Roberty, "there isn't any question in my mind that while we're not very clairvoyant, we better well have some foresight . . . . It's our obligation to try to anticipate the kind of community reaction you might get if you're not particularly mindful of the community interest."
But the leader of the local group Roberty said he had in mind asserted the production of the play was of no concern to her or the group, the Heritage Education and Review Organization. HERO claims 65 members in Harford County and 600 in the state. "We're not even into the issue," said Penny Bowen, HERO's president. William Bowen, her husband and a Baltimore city social studies teacher, added, "It just seemed to me it was a simple school play" he has seen produced elsewhere in a "very neutral, tasteful way."
The play is the dramatic recreation of the Scopes trial itself, with much of the material derived directly from the court transcript. Scopes had deliberately challenged the Tennessee law against the teaching of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, and his trial brought two legal giants and hordes of reporters to the tiny town of Dayton.
William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential loser and a believer in the literal Bible, prosecuted the case. Clarence Darrow, a sharp-tongued civil libertarian, defended Scopes. The teacher was convicted but his $100 fine was overturned on a technicality.
"There could not be a more bizarre choice of a play to stir up all this controversy," said Barbara Mello, the Harford teachers' ACLU attorney. "It is a play about bigotry, pomposity, ignorance and the law; it's not about evolution or religion or anything else."
The very school administrators who disagree with their play selection describe Berg, 32, and Huller, 34, as "fine teachers." Berg, cochairman of the social studies department at North Harford Middle School, wears an American flag patch on his jacket and coaches soccer and softball. Huller, chairman of the English department, is a Cub Scout packmaster.
In prior years, the two teachers oversaw student productions of "Romeo and Juliet," "Macbeth" and "The Diary of Anne Frank." They chose "Inherit the Wind" for this year's spring production because the eighth grade social studies curriculum calls for "in-depth study of complex and diverse topics." The two outlined their reasons for the selection in a seven-page handwritten report, required by their superiors in this instance only. The play, they said, contains "relevance to current events" and "historical and literary value."
In 1975, they noted, the play had been produced at what was then the North Harford Junior-Senior High School for seventh through 12th graders, without any fuss. "I'm not a weatherman," Berg said, "but I don't believe the climate has changed that much since 1975."
Berg and Huller selected the play over the summer. In the fall, their supervisor and principal raised objections but the issue lay dormant until last month, when it was passed on to central administrators. Deputy Superintendent Alden H. Halsey and John C. Bator, director of secondary education, concurred in their recommendation to Roberty that the play was unsuitable.
In interviews, both administrators said the play could be performed inside the classroom and would remain on library shelves. Halsey questioned whether eighth grade students were "psychologically and socially mature enough to deal with the characters and divorce themselves from it."
"Without proper preparation," said Bator, "I feel our school kids could be traumatized, especially if they have had a strong, warm affectionate upbringing towards ministers," Bator said.
Both Bator and Halsey were concerned the play might offend Christian fundamentalists because the two ministers in the play--who opposed the teaching of evolution--were unsympathetic characters.
"The atmosphere in the community would suggest that some prudence is in order," Bator explained. "I don't feel I'm doing anything even in the smallest way to diminish democracy or infringe on anybody's freedom. It is a pedagogical decision as far as I'm concerned."
Roberty's initial ruling against the play last Tuesday came as a federal judge in Arkansas threw out a state law requiring the teaching of "creation science" alongside the theory of evolution. Roberty said Saturday he still is worried about a similar law proposed in Maryland. "If we do the play," Berg said, he planned to ask the legislative sponsor to tape a commentary as part of a classroom lesson.
Playwright Lee told Berg in a telephone conversation Friday he would also like to contribute to the classroom discussion.
"It's a great teaching tool," Berg said. "Freedom of speech is the issue here."
"Exactly," the playwright agreed.
"That's what I keep telling them, and they keep saying but, but . . . "
"We're not damning religion nor diminishing the glory of the Lord," said Lee.
"It's a real honor to talk to you," Berg said.
"Good luck," the playwright said, "and keep your sense of humor."