Dateline: May 03, 2000
There are many parallels in history where similar religious opposition was mounted against those who spread or simply held ideas which were contrary to tradition and religion. Socrates was forced by the people of Athens to drink hemlock as punishment for spreading ideas contrary to tradition and religion - in fact, one of the charges was that he was an atheist.
Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake by church authorities for daring to propose that the universe was other than what they declared. Galileo Galilei was effectively imprisoned for agreeing with Copernicus rather than church teachings. Baruch Spinoza was exiled from Amsterdam by rabbis because of his heretical ideas - he, too, was charged with atheism.
The most immediate parallel - one drawn even by people involved in the case - was with the Scopes trial in Tennessee from 1925. At the time, John Scopes was regarded merely as an employee and could thus be forced not to teach things contrary to popular opinion and religion. Academic freedom really didn't exist at the time for Scopes any more than it ultimately did for Russell.
Even Albert Einstein faced such opposition, and his experiences were probably a factor in his support of Russell. When Einstein was trying to emigrate from Germany to the United States back in 1932, he encountered vociferous opposition from "patriots" who declared that he was a "Bolshevist" and that his theories of relativity were without "scientific value or purpose." It is not coincidental that at the time of his conflict with religious leaders in New York City, Bertrand Russell was also accused of being a Communist.
Although most Americans imagine that communist witch hunts were largely confined to the 1950s and Senator McCarthy, in fact they occurred all through the 1930s and 1940s as well. Most people don't realized that for America, the 1920s were a time of social rebellion and changes not at all unlike the 1960s - and in the decades immediately following there arose a conservative backlash not unlike what has occurred again starting in the late 1970s with the formation of the Religious Right.
Thus, when Einstein came out in support of Russell, Weidlich quotes one priest as declaring that this
...confirmed previous reports that he well-known mathematician was interested in smashing moral laws, as well as physical laws which have been accepted as established.