March 13, 1890
WHAT ARE THE RIGHTS OF CONSCIENCE
JUDGE BENNETT’S answer to the question as to what are the rights of conscience is only an assertion of the doctrine of the majority conscience, in support of which he argues thus:—
The plaintiffs and their children must not forget that other people have consciences, and are protected in those rights of conscience as well as themselves. Suppose the Board of Education in this school district, and the great body of the patrons of the school, conscientiously believe that the Bible should be read in the public school, as strongly and fully as the plaintiffs believe it should not be? Whose conscientious scruples must yield?
Without hesitation and without qualification we say the conscience of the majority must give way. Otherwise there is no such thing as rights of conscience. If the majority is to rule in matters of conscience, then the constitutional provisions guarding the rights of conscience are “a mere parchment barrier,” a tantalizing delusion. It is solely to protect the conscientious convictions of the few, or even the solitary individual, that these provisions are made a part of the Constitution. There is no danger that the majority, “the great body,” of the people will infringe or interfere with their own conscientious convictions. “The Constitution did not mean to inquire how many or how few would profess or not profess this or that particular religion. If there be but a single individual in the State who professes a particular faith, he is as much within the sacred protection of the Constitution as if he agreed with the great majority of his fellow-citizens.”—9 Cal. p. 514.
But not altogether to set up our own view alone in answer to Judge Bennett’s question, we present the following words of Hon. Stanley Matthews: “If it be said that the Protestant conscience requires that the Bible be read by and to Protestant children, and that it is a denial of a right of conscience to forbid it, waiving at present the obvious and conclusive answer that no such right of conscience can require that the Stale shall provide out of the common taxes for its gratification, it is enough to say that Catholics then, too, have the same right to have their children taught religion according to their views—not out of the Douay Bible if they do not consider that sufficient, but—by catechism and in the celebration of the mass, if they choose to insist; that the Jews have the same right to have their religion taught in the common schools—not from the English version of the Old Testament, but—according to the practice of their synagogues; and infidels have the same right to have their children taught deism, or pantheism, or positivism.
“They have no right to insist upon Protestant practices at the public expense, or in public buildings, or to turn public schools into seminaries for the dissemination of Protestant ideas. They can claim nothing on the score of conscience which they cannot equally concede to all others. It is not a question of majorities or minorities; for if the conscience of the majority is to be the standard, then there is no such thing as a right of conscience at all. It is against the predominance and power of majorities that the rights of conscience are protected, and have need to be.”
It is most likely that the people of the United States think they have the rights of conscience guaranteed to them—and in fact they have by their Constitution—but they seem not to realize how easy it is for a court by a few words to sweep away all constitutional guaranties. It is likely that the people of Wisconsin think their rights of conscience are secure; but if Judge Bennett’s decision expresses the law in that State they have no rights of conscience  at all. It may be indeed that the Protestants of the city of Edgerton feel that they are secure, even under this decision, because they are the majority, and the decision says the majority conscience must rule. But if this were made a State question, these same Protestants would probably be surprised to know that the Roman Catholics are more than one and a half times as numerous as the Protestants in that State; and if the Roman Catholics should assert the majority-conscience doctrine it is certain that the Protestants would very soon discover that the constitutional safeguards themselves, rather than Protestant dogmas, need to be guarded by the courts. Let the Protestants of Wisconsin protest against this sweeping away of these rights of conscience.
One of the arguments made by counsel for the plaintiffs was, that the Constitution was adopted to “insure domestic tranquillity,” and that the reading of the Bible in the public schools “tends to create discord,” and that therefore the reading of the Bible in the public schools is unconstitutional! It must be confessed that this argument is more ingenious than profound; but the Judge’s answer to it is far worse than the argument. The answer does not possess even the merit of ingenuity. The Court’s reply was this:—
It is claimed by both parties to this litigation, that the New Testament at least contains the gospel of peace. This was declared by the angel of the Lord at the birth of the Saviour. We read in Luke, ch. 2, verses 13, 14, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” … If the reading of the Bible concerning the words and wonderful works of the Divine Being whose advent into the world was so beautifully, grandly, and sublimely announced by the angel of the Lord, would produce dissension and discontent, and not peace on earth and good will toward men, then it would follow that the “angel of the Lord” was mistaken.
Indeed, and indeed!! And therefore that the reputation of the angel of the Lord for truth and veracity may not suffer in the community about Edgerton, Wisconsin, the State Circuit Court, Judge Bennet [sic.] presiding, must needs come to the rescue and give him a certificate of good character!
Let us carry the Judge’s argument a little further. Let us put it to the test of the Scripture, and see how it will work. Thus: “The New Testament at least contains the gospel of peace. This was declared by the angel of the Lord at the birth of the Saviour. We read in Luke ch. 2, verses 13, 14, ‘And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.’” Now in the same book of Luke we read ch. 12, verses 51-53, the words of the Saviour himself whose advent was so grandly announced, saying: “Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: for from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother-in-law-against her daughter-in-law and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
Now the rest of the Judge’s argument comes in: If the coming of the Divine Being whose advent into the world was so beautifully, grandly, and sublimely announced by the angel of the Lord, would produce dissension “and division” and not peace, then it would follow that the “angel of the Lord was mistaken.”
Well, Judge, really now how is it? Was the angel of the Lord mistaken or was he not? Was the angel of the Lord mistaken or was the Lord himself mistaken?
Again: the plaintiffs might have appealed the case to the Supreme Court, and upon the strength of Judge Bennett’s argument might have pleaded thus: The Circuit Court has decided that we have “created discord, and ought not to be heard” (page 54). Now the Saviour said he came to send division and discord on the earth. If, then, there be not division and discord, it will follow that the Saviour was mistaken. Therefore the decision must be in our favor, or else the Supreme Court will be involved in the serious matter of sanctioning a grave reflection upon the character of the Lord.
If Judge Bennett’s argument in defense of the angel is good, this argument would be much better in defense of the Lord, as he is “so much better than the angels,” as to have “obtained a more excellent name than they.” Hebrews 1:4.
We do not present this seeming conflict in the Scriptures to sanction for a moment any such idea as that either the angel or the Lord was mistaken, for they both told the truth: we simply present this the more fully to show what is already apparent, that in assuming the role of defender of the angels, and attempting to expound Scripture from the bench, Judge Bennett entered into a field where he had no business to go. The character of the angels of the Lord needs no defense from the Circuit Court of Wisconsin.
In closing his decision the Judge said:—
The Bible remains and it would seem like turning a good, true, and ever faithful friend and counselor out of doors, to exclude it from the public schools of the State.
This observation confirms what is apparent throughout the whole decision, that Judge Bennett assumed the position of an advocate instead of retaining that of a judge. He sat there as an advocate to plead for his “ever faithful friend,” and at all hazards to keep him where he was, instead of sitting as a just judge to decide fairly whether, in the first place that “faithful friend” ought to have been where he was.
To us the Bible is as much of an ever faithful friend and counselor, as it can be we think to Judge Bennett or anybody else; and we want to see it become the same to everybody else as far as possible. But we know that friendship is not very readily formed nor very firmly cemented, nor are the admonitions of a counselor very respectfully received, by being forced upon people at their expense and against their will, as has been done with the Bible in the public schools of Wisconsin.
A. T. J.