IN support of his advocacy of the Bible and “natural religion” in the public schools, Joseph Cook has cited the decision of Circuit Judge John R. Bennett of Wisconsin. That our readers may see how it is that the Bible and religious exercises are maintained in the schools by the decisions of courts, we propose to notice Judge Bennett’s decision. This is important, not only, nor so much, for what lie himself says, but also for what is said in other decisions from which he obtains the sanction of his action.
This decision was rendered in November 1888. The cause which called it out was this: The preamble to the Constitution of the State of Wisconsin say:—
We, the people of Wisconsin, grateful to Almighty God for our freedom, in order to secure its blessings, form a more perfect government, insure domestic tranquillity, and promote the general welfare, do establish this Constitution.
The Declaration of Rights says:—
The right of every man to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of his own conscience shall never be infringed, nor shall any man be compelled to attend, erect, or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry, against his consent. Nor shall any control or interference with the rights of conscience be permitted, or any preference be given by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship.
And Article 10, Section 3, says:—
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 four and twenty years, and no sectarian instruction shall be allowed therein.
In the city of Edgerton, Wisconsin there were “many” Roman Catholics who were sending and desired still to send their children to the public schools. They were residents and tax-payers for the support of the schools, and were equally entitled with all others to have their children instructed in these schools under the Constitution. Frederick Weiss and others, plaintiffs, presented a petition to the court respectfully setting forth—
That certain of the teachers employed by the District Board, having charge of the schools to conduct the same and instruct the pupils attending the same, including the children of the plantiffs, read to said pupils each and every day the schools are in session, and during school hours, certain portions of the Book, commonly known as the BIBLE, the teacher selecting the portions so read and using the translation known as the King James Version.
That the plaintiffs, and many others of the resident tax-payers of said school district, whose children attend said schools, and are under the control and instruction of said teachers, are, together with their children, members of the Roman Catholic Church, and conscientiously believe its doctrines, faith, and forms of worship, and that by said church, the said version is taught and believed to be an incorrect and incomplete translation by reason of the omission of a certain part of the books held by such church to be an integral portion of the inspired Canon: and it, is further taught by said Roman Catholic Church and believed by its members that the scriptures ought not to be read indiscriminately, inasmuch as said church has Divine Authority as the only infallible teacher and interpreter of the same, and that the reading of the same without note or comment, and without being expounded by the only authorized teachers and interpreters thereof, is not only not beneficial to the children in said schools, and especially the children of the plantiffs who are members of said church, but likely to lead to the adoption of dangerous errors, irreligious faith, practice and worship, and that by reason thereof the practice of reading King James version of the Bible commonly and only received as inspired and true by the Protestant religious sects, is regarded by the members of said Roman Catholic Church, including the plaintiffs, as contrary to the rights of conscience, and as wholly contrary to, and in violation of the law, and that they believe such exercises as above set forth, and each and all of them to be sectarian instruction, in violation of SECTION 3 ARTICLE 10, of the Constitution of the State of Wisconsin.
The District School Board, in its answer admitted that the Bible was read in the department where these Catholic children were; but
“The answer avers that such children were not required to remain in the school-room during such reading, but were at liberty to withdraw during such reading if they so desire.”
The District Board in further answering the petition, upon information and belief deny that the Roman Catholic Church is the only infallible teacher or interpreter of the Bible, but on the contrary aver upon information and belief, that every person has the right to read and interpret it for himself, and the claim of the relators in that regard is sectarian and that an enforcement thereof would be a violation of law, or that the same is sectarian, or in violation of Section 3 of Article 10 of the Constitution of this State or the Statutes or Common Law of this State.
That part of the answer which says that  the children were not required to remain in the room, but were at liberty to retire during the reading of the Bible, the Judge justly disposed of by saying that, “It might be very inconvenient for the children of the plaintiffs to leave the school-rooms during this exercise, which I must regard as a part of the school exercise; and especially so, in the more inclement seasons of the year. And I am not aware that any room is mentioned in the pleading to which they could conveniently retire. And it would seem to be an unquestioned right of every taxable inhabitant and patron of the school, to have his children remain in the rooms appropriated to their use for the time being, during all school hours, and to be present at all school exercises; and that these exercises should not be sectarian in character, nor improperly interfere with their religious convictions or conscientious scruples. I may here state that I place very little stress upon the fact that the children of the plaintiffs were not required to be present when the Bible was read. Because if the mere reading of the King James version of the Bible in the public schools of the State constitutes ‘sectarian instruction’ within the meaning of the Constitution, then it cannot be read.”
Thus the main questions to be decided were, 1. Is the reading of the King James version of the Bible sectarian instruction? and, 2. What constitutes an improper and unconstitutional interference with the rights of conscience? And it is sincerely to be regretted that the Judge was not so fortunately clear in his decision of these two questions as he was in his disposal of the pitiful plea that the Catholic children were not required to remain in the rooms while the Protestant Bible was being read.
On both points he cites decisions of the Supreme Courts of Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Illinois, and Iowa, and gives his decision accordingly: these decisions will be noticed separately, as there is matter in them of vast importance to the American people, in view of the use that has been made of them in Wisconsin. Judge Bennett presents very little opinion of his own in this decision, but what he does present is worthy of particular notice.
As to whether the reading of the King James version of the Bible in the public schools is sectarian or not, the Judge says:—
If this belief of the members of the Roman Catholic Church is sufficient to exclude the Bible from the public schools, it would exclude any and all versions from being read except the Douay version, and this also unless read and expounded by an authorized teacher and interpreter of the same…. The logical result of this claim of the plaintiffs is that the Douay version if the only version that could be read in the public schools, and this only whom read and expounded by a duly ordained priest, who undoubtedly would expound and interpret the same in accordance with the teachings and beliefs of such church. This it would seem, would amount to “sectarian instruction” within the meaning of the Constitution; and the same wrong would be inflicted upon others of which the plaintiffs complain.
It is wholly a gratuitous assumption on the part of the Judge that the plantiffs desired to have the Douay version read in the place of the King James version; there is nothing in the case anywhere that shows anything of the kind. They simply asked to be relieved from being compelled to hear the reading of the King James version. But let it be granted that the logic of the case would demand that the Douay version only should be read. Is it not just as proper that the Roman Catholics shall demand that the Douay version be read, as it is for the Protestants to insist that the King James version shall be read? Oh no! says the the [sic.] Judge, that “would amount to sectarian instruction within the meaning of the Constitution.” Well then, if the reading of the Douay version, according to the Roman Catholic idea, would amount to sectarian instruction, how is it that the reading of the King James version, according to the Protestant idea, would not amount to sectarian instruction? How is it that this would be to inflict upon others “the same wrong” as that of which the plaintiffs themselves now complain, when the whole course of this judicial argument and decision is to make it appear that no wrong is inflicted upon the plaintiffs?
If this decision is correct, then no wrong could be inflicted by the Roman Catholics in so doing, and the Judge contradicts himself and his decision when he says it would be to inflict a wrong. And in this self-contradiction he has lost his case. In saying that the reading of the Douay version, according to the Roman Catholic formula, would be sectarian instruction within the meaning of the Constitution, in all justice the Judge just as certainly says that the reading of the King James version, according to the Protestant formula, is also sectarian instruction within the meaning of the Constitution. In saying that the doing of that by the Roman Catholics would be to inflict a wrong on others, in all justice the Judge as certainly says that the doing of this by the Protestants is likewise to inflict a wrong upon others. This wrong, within the meaning of the Constitution was inflicted upon the Roman Catholics of the city of Edgerton. They petitioned the Court for relief. Their petition was refused. Therefore it is clearly demonstrated that the Circuit Court of Wisconsin, Judge Bennett presiding, does judicially sanction the infliction, upon the Roman Catholics, of a wrong within the meaning of the Constitution of that State.
We shall say some more on this subject next week; but in closing we would respectfully submit to all friends of the Golden Rule, and lovers of justice, Have not the Roman Catholics some cause for opposition to the public school system, at least in Wisconsin?
A. T. J.