In Inherit the Wind, how is the town on trial?The authors state that the town is on trial but I don't get how.
Officially, Bert Cates is on trial for breaking the state law against the teaching of evolution. But that's not what's important here; no one seriously denies that he broke the law. What is important, however, is that in a wider moral sense, the whole town of Hillsboro is on trial for its social and religious attitudes. This particular trial isn't a trial in the legal sense; it's a trial taking place in the court of public opinion. Almost all the townsfolk fervently believe in a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible. Inevitably, this means that they cannot accept the theory of evolution by natural selection. In the wider world outside, however, most people either do accept evolution, or at the very least support the right of schools to teach it.
So there are two elements to the town's being on trial. Firstly, the fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture is being subject to public scrutiny. Secondly, the attitude of the townsfolk towards ideas with which they disagree is also being put under the microscope, so to speak. The issues surrounding the trial of Bert Cates are of infinitely greater significance than the narrow legal question of whether or not he broke the law in teaching evolution. In other words, the trial of Hillsboro in the court of public opinion is much more important than the trial of Bert Cates in a court of law.
The town of Hillsboro, Tennessee is on trial in the sense that the beliefs of the townspeople regarding the truth of evolution or the truth of creation as told in the Bible are being debated and judged.
The banner over Main Street declares, "Read Your Bible" and establishes the position of most of the residents as believers in the Biblical creation story. The suggestion that man was not created by God in a single act, but grew and evolved from monkeys was offensive heresy and an affront to the good citizens and their beliefs.
The few individuals in town who sympathize with Bert Cates and consider evolution as a factual phenomena vary from arguing their beliefs to working to support Bert to poking fun at the other side. Consider Howard and Melinda's discussion in the first scene.
Howard: What’re yuh skeered of? You was a worm once!
Melinda: (Shocked) I wasn’t neither.
Howard: You was so! When the whole world was covered with water, there was nothin’ but worms and blobs of jelly. And you and your whole family was worms!
Howard's intent was to make fun of Melinda. But for many others in town, the intent was to try, judge, convict, and punish Bert for threatening the beliefs of the townspeople.