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People approach the front of the historic Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, Tenn. County leaders are discussing how to protect and preserve the courthouse, site of the1925 Scopes trial, when a new jail or justice center eventually is built.

Rhea County officials met Sunday to discuss ways the historic Rhea County Courthouse can be preserved even after the construction of a new jail or justice center.

Tom Davis, chairman of the Rhea County Historical and Genealogical Society's board of directors, submitted a statement to the Rhea County Commission last week asking the county to keep the preservation of the courthouse a priority as the commission makes plans.

"The courthouse is like any other building," Davis said. "If it is not used, it will deteriorate and collapse. We don't want that to happen."

Built in 1891, the Rhea County Courthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places because it hosted the Scopes trial. In the landmark 1925 case, biology teacher John Scopes defied Tennessee law to teach his students the theory of evolution.

Tim Reed, chairman of the Rhea County Commission, met with society members Sunday afternoon. Reed said in a telephone interview that the county is committed to maintaining the courthouse.

"It's a national historic site, and we have no choice but to preserve it," he said. "It would be a shame if it was not kept up and preserved."

The commission has not yet made concrete plans for the preservation, Reed said.

"We haven't even decided if we are going to build a justice center or a jail yet," he said. "We are simply looking at options right now."

Reed said the county is considering three major options: building a jail expansion, building a jail and justice center downtown, or building a jail expansion or justice center outside downtown Dayton.

"We're in the process of looking at floor plans and architectural work for those sites at this time," he said. "So no decisions have been made at all."

Rhea County has been planning the construction since 2010, when the Rhea County Jail was cited for overcrowding. Reed emphasized that the plans include the preservation of the courthouse.

"At no time has anyone ever discussed abandoning the courthouse or abandoning the responsibility we have to maintain such a beautiful old building," he said.