The Cartoons of the Day post from a couple of days ago, featured two toons highlighting the insanity of Wayne LaPierre and the NRA. The terms “conservative hypocrisy” and “Bible-thumping” were brought up in the Comments sections leading one reader to write, “I’d rather have Bible-thumpers than Democrat politicians pretending they care about the middle class.”
This prompted E.A. Blair to ask our bible-thumper whether she was aware of the first major court case to take bible study out of public schools. She wasn’t so E.A. followed up with a response which I thought deserved its own post. Here it is.
Some time ago, in the town of Edgerton, Wisconsin, it was part of the public school routine for teachers to read from the Bible to the students. There were a number of parents who did not like this practice because of the harm it might do to their children.
Where these parents Atheists? No.
Were they church-and god-and-mom-and-apple pie-hating liberals? No.
They were Catholic parents, and they feared that their children would be condemned to hell for being taught from the heretic King James Bible. Every good Catholic knew that only the Douay Bible was the guidebook to heaven, being the only translation of the original Latin bible whispered by Jesus into the ear of Saint Jerome himself. Here is what the Wisconsin Supreme Court records have to say about the parents’ petition:
They were outraged by some teachers’ practice of reading the King James version of the Bible, without comment or instruction, to pupils during school hours. As members of the Roman Catholic Church, they viewed the King James version of the Bible as an incorrect and incomplete translation. They also believed the Catholic Church was the only “infallible” interpreter of the scriptures and feared the reading of the Bible by non-authorized teachers could lead to “dangerous errors.”
Because the Edgerton school was a public school, the parents argued that the Bible readings amounted to use of state funds to support a place of worship and that the readings violated the separation of church and state.
The good Protestants on the Edgerton school board refused to accommodate the wishes of the Catholics:
Responding to the petitioners’ concerns, the school board said students were not required to remain in the school during the Bible readings, but rather were “at liberty to withdraw during such reading if they desire to do so.” They also denied that the Roman Catholic Church is the only “infallible” interpreter of the Bible, stating “that every person has the right to read the Bible and interpret it for himself.”
The board said it had the right and authority, under state law, to determine which textbooks should be used. Furthermore, it argued that the King James Bible was a valid textbook for teaching a “universal” moral code and for general instruction because the state superintendent of public instruction recommended it for use in public schools.
In other words, the Edgerton school board said that it had more authority than their own Church to decide which bible was appropriate for the papist minions of the Whore of Babylon, so the parents went to court.
These days, most godly people think that taking prayer out of schools is a fairly recent development, occurring in 1963 on the instigation of that perverted atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hair (actually, the case was brought about by Unitarian Universalist Edward Schempp; his and O’Hair’s cases were consolidated for presentation to the supreme court). This little tiff in Edgerton went to court in 1888, 75 years before Abington School District v. Schempp.
The Rock County Circuit Court ruled against the Catholic parents. The judges apparently lacked the theological prejudice bigotry acumen to know the vital difference between one version of a book and another. It was ruled that since both the Douay and King James bibles were translations of the same work, they were equivalent.
The parents appealed to a higher power; not the archbishop, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Two years later, in the case State ex rel Weiss v. District Board 76 Wis. 177 (1890), 3, otherwise known as the Edgerton Bible Case, the judges overruled the circuit court’s decision, concluding that it illegally united the functions of church and state. They decided that the rightful place for religious instruction was in the home or in Sunday schools, not in state-run schools where children of different cults denominations had a right to equal treatment despite their parents’ arguments over whether the Lord’s Prayer included the phrase, “for Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory” or the commandments forbade the making of graven images.1
Chief Justice Lyon’s majority opinion addressed the board’s argument that the drafters of the state Constitution did not intend to ban reading of the Bible in public schools. Lyon recounted the period and climate in which the Constitution was drafted. He suggested that the framers were eager to see the state develop and grow; therefore, the intent of the Constitution, and Article X, Section 3 in particular2, was to ensure that:
(I)n addition to the guaranties of the right of conscience and of worship in their own way, the free district school in which their children were to be, or might be, educated, were absolute common ground, where the pupils were equal, and where sectarian instruction, and with it sectarian intolerance, under which they had smarted in the old country, could never enter.
Article I, Section 18 of the Wisconsin State Constitution was also taken into consideration.3
Lyon further stated that it is “universally known” that there is a difference between the King James and the Douay (adhered to by the Roman Catholic Church) versions of the Bible in that many details representing important components of various religious sects’ canons differ. Furthermore, certain passages read at the Edgerton school suggest the divinity of Jesus Christ, predestination and eternal punishment. These ideas are not accepted by all religious sects, thereby showing Bible reading as sectarian instruction.
Justice Cassoday’s and Justice Orton’s concurring opinions4 considered whether the reading of the Bible in public school forced taxpayers to support a place of worship and addressed the issue of the separation of church and state. They agreed with the petitioners that the only use of state treasury funds, by law, must be entirely secular. They stated that many, if not most, religious sects view the reading of the Bible as a part and even the essence of worship; therefore, the practice in question is a violation of the Wisconsin and U.S. Constitutions.
The Supreme Court concluded that even though the State Department of Public Instruction recommended the King James Bible as a textbook, the issue was a question of law, not to be decided by the “learned chiefs” of educational policy. They ruled Bible reading in public schools illegal and issued a writ of mandamus, ordering the district board to end Bible reading in the Edgerton public school.
Thus, 123 years ago, Chief Justice William Lyon, along with justices Harlow Orton and John Cassoday opened the doors for throwing the deity out of Wisconsin’s public schools, condemning generations of schoolchildren to start down the long road to secularism and eternal damnation5. When Abington School District v. Schempp reached the US Supreme Court, the Edgerton Bible Case was cited as a precedent by Justice William Brennan, Jr.
</snark>However, the Edgerton Bible Case is not just about whether religious instruction in public schools where people of many different backgrounds and families are gathered for education; it is also about whether a religious model for government is possible or practical. It is also about the inevitable argument that occurs in a nation where literally thousands of sects, denominations, factions, cults and religions exist side by side. Not all of them are biblical, and of the great majority of those who are, significant numbers disagree on matters of doctrine, authority, interpretation of precepts, and, yes, which version of their holy book is the “correct” one. The same issue decided relatively peacefully in Edgerton in 1888 and Madison in 1890 had been the cause of deadly riots in Philadelphia in 1844.
Ambrose Bierce wrote that impiety could be defined as “your irreverence to my deity”; he was right. Religion is very personal, and taking it public causes problems when not everyone is on the same page. When we talk about letting the pulpit in a church run or dictate to the bully pulpit in Washington or the state capitol, we’re always faced with an unpleasant choice. Who do you want in charge? Whose doctrines should dictate national policy. Jehovah’s Witnesses? Say goodbye to blood transfusions. Christian Scientists? Ditto for all medical care. Mormons? Prohibition all over again. Scientologists? Xenu forbid! I’d rather go with the Pastafarians.
It’s long been a chestnut of US History that the Establishment Clause forbidding a national church was the product of tolerance and foresight. In the book Founding Faith: Providence, Politics and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America, author Stephen Waldman presents quite a different picture. The Congregationalists hated the Methodists, the Methodists hated the Presbyterians, the Anglicans (who became the Episcopalians to shed their royalist associations with the Church of England) hated the Baptists (who could be jailed for preaching in Virginia) and almost everyone hated the Quakers and Catholics who were lucky to have states of their own (Pennsylvania and Maryland, respectively) and Jews were not held in very high esteem, either. Waldman reports that the sentiment ran so high, that some would rather see a “Mahometan” or a “heathen” occupy public office rather than let the papists or the Puritans have the upper hand6.
<snark>So what’s going to happen when Reverent President Oral Creflo Robertson-Graham III decides to tell all the Catholic churches to get rid of all the statues of saints and paint over their stained glass windows? When all the storefront churches in all the cities across America are going to need licences to operate (and pastors could be imprisoned for preaching without a permit as in pre-Constitutional Virginia)? When, rather than the Mark of the Beast, all citizens will have to sport a cross? And if you think that’s silly, is it any worse than the talking points and conspiracy theories from Fux News and the wingnuts and the crazies and the teabaggers about the horrors (not) being inflicted upon us daily by that atheist-Muslim-socialist-fascist-commie-terrorist-pallin’-uppity President Barracks Hitler Hussein Obummer and his fat, ugly lunch-Nazi wife?
Maybe it’s a good thing that the various religious groups in this country hate each other more than they hate those of us who value freedom from religion as much as we value freedom of religion. If they ever decided to get together and settle their differences, it would be a dark day indeed. It’s almost, but not quite, enough to make one appreciate the existence of the Westboro Baptist Church.
1. The version of the commandments in Catholic bibles contains no admonition regarding the making of “graven images”. Although I grew up in the Catholic school system, I had no idea what the term meant. When I was around five or six, I though it meant carvings on tombstones, and for a while thought that going to a cemetery would get me sent to hell. That’s no sillier than some thing other people believe will get you there.
2. Wisconsin Constitution, Article X, Section 3: “The legislature shall provide by law for the establishment of district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable; and such schools shall be free and without charge for tuition to all children between the ages of 4 and 40 years; and no sectarian instruction shall be allowed therein; but the legislature by law may, for the purpose of religious instruction outside the district schools, authorize the release of students during regular school hours.”
3. Wisconsin Constitution, Article I, Section 18: “The right of every person to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of conscience shall never be infringed; nor shall any person be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry, without consent; nor shall any control of, or interference with, the rights of conscience be permitted, or any preference be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship; nor shall any money be drawn from the treasury for the benefit of religious societies, or religious or theological seminaries.”
4. The opinions of Justices Orasmus Cole and David Taylor are not recorded. Whether they concurred or dissented with the majority, they did not issue written opinions. At this time, Harlow Orton was the sole Democratic justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
5. Because parents are too lazy to make sure that the children receive proper religious instruction at home or at their churches? Perhaps. I am constantly amused by the fact that so many people who hate, fear and mistrust the government want to give that same government stewardship of religion.
6. If you want to find the source for this information, go to your public library and get Waldman’s book. I’m not going to reread the entire thing for the sake of one endnote.