Sixty-one years ago this month, in the rolling mountains of eastern Tennessee, high school biology teacher John Thomas Scopes was put on trial for teaching that man evolved from apes. It was a celebrated case that pitted proponents of the controversial scientific theory against Protestant fundamentalists who adhered to a literal interpretation of the Bible.
Now the east Tennessee Bible Belt is again the setting of a contest between militant fundamentalist thought and the public education system. It is being called "Scopes II" locally, and it is attracting much the same national notoriety as that first sensational battle of beliefs.
The first case was about evolution, the theory that challenged the biblical interpretation of the creation of man. The current case is about textbooks that some Christian parents find offensive because, they say, the books promote an anti-God, atheistic philosophy known as "secular humanism."
"Scopes I," a case forced to court by the American Civil Liberties Union, locked the legendary Clarence Darrow against the equally well-known William Jennings Bryan in the oratorical battle of the century.
"Scopes II," which opens today in U.S. District Court in Greeneville, pits the liberal lobby group People for the American Way and its army of lawyers and publicists against an equally powerful conservative counterpart, the Concerned Women for America.
Despite the obvious parallels of setting and theme, the 11-day Scopes trial that began July 10, 1925, and the trial that opens today have some key differences. These underscore the changed nature of the church-state debate in this country while highlighting the new tactics and strategies of America's Christian fundamentalists.
Increasingly, fundamentalists who have lost battles with local school boards are turning to the courts, much the same way civil rights activists used courts in the 1960s.
A similar case involving fundamentalists and public schools is scheduled to begin in Mobile, Ala., in September.
In the Scopes "Monkey Trial," the state was on the side of the fundamentalists, prosecuting the young teacher for violating a law that forbade teaching "any theory that denies the story of the Divine creation of man." The Tennessee legislature passed the law under pressure from the militant Protestant movement in the South.
In today's trial, which is expected to last two weeks, the fundamentalists are the minority, and they are challenging the state for what they see as an infringement of their First Amendment rights.
The case began in 1983 when a small group of parents in Church Hill, Tenn., objected to the school system's prescribed reading list because certain books, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, offended their religious beliefs.
When one parent, Vicki Frost, entered the school to remove her daughter, she was arrested for trespassing, and she became a cause celebre in Christian circles.
Now Frost and the other fundamentalist parents are suing the Hawkins County public school system, arguing that the schools have a constitutional responsibility to assign their children an alternate reading list. "We have argued that the books violate the plaintiff's religious beliefs in a number of areas," the parents argue in one court brief. "The key area is that they teach other forms of salvation, other than faith in Jesus Christ alone."
"I think everybody has the right to voice disapproval of what their children are taught in school," said Rebecca Redd Hagelin, public relations director for Concerned Women for America. "We're not asking that the books be banned. We're asking for alternate readers." The current books, she said, "poke fun at Christianity."
But on the other side, Tennessee school officials and the People for the American Way say they fear that allowing a small band of parents to choose alternative books opens the door to a fragmentation of the public school system along sectarian lines.
"If they are successful, it means the end of public education as we know it," said Anthony Podesta, who heads People for the American Way. "A Roman Catholic first grade, a fundamentalist first grade, and a kind of residual first grade for everyone else. If they are successful, they then create the right to ghettoize the public schools into religiously based curricula."
Podesta also said the case may have already intimidated textbook publishers, who might pander to fundamentalist thought to avoid future controversy.
Tennessee school officials also have argued in court papers that it would be "disruptive to have a small group of students leave the regular classroom for special instruction in reading."
The fundamentalist parents, among other things, object to "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" because Goldilocks is never punished for breaking and entering and destruction of property. They contend that Jack and Jill dancing in the moonlight is an advocation of satanic worship. They dislike the scene in which the Three Little Pigs dance around the wolf in the kettle, saying it promotes witchcraft.
One of the books most objectionable to them, "Riders on the Earth," describes the first lunar landing and talks of humans as "riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold -- brothers who know they are truly brothers." The fundamentalists said that passage, and the general tone of the book's other essays, advocate sun worship, internationalism and one-world government -- at the expense of national pride.
Lawyers on both sides agreed in an earlier, pretrial conference that the parents' religious beliefs were deeply held, and that the books did offend those beliefs.
The result of that agreement now will be an unfettered trial based only on one legal issue: do parents who object to certain materials in public schools have a right to demand alternatives for their children? Or, put another way, to what extent must public schools accommodate the wishes of minority groups they serve?
As the fundamentalists say in one court brief: "No one would think of asking, 'Can a public school force a Jewish child to eat pork?' . . . . Likewise, since Jehovah's Witnesses object to any celebration of Halloween, would we seriously try to force such children to participate in Halloween activities or to read stories about Halloween over their religious objections? Would we force Black Muslim children to read biased material praising the superiority of the white race . . . ? "