Thursday, July 12, 2012

A One-room Schoolhouse Surprise

Isaac Beckley Werner was an accomplished carpenter, and he helped build the wood frame school house that served his prairie community.  He believed in education, not only for children but also for adults to continue reading and studying.  So, this post about a country school house is particularly apt.

Our last stop at the Homestead National Monument was the brick Freeman School.  White curtains waved at the windows as I crossed the boardwalk from the parking area, admiring the neatly painted privy behind the school and the American flag high atop its pole at the front.  This was certainly a handsome school for homesteaders' children to attend.  Later, I learned that the Freeman School did not close until 1967, earning the distinction of being the oldest operating 1-room school in Nebraska.

A park ranger greeted me inside the school.  I looked at the interior, so similar to other 1-room schools I had visited--with pictures of Washington and Lincoln at the front, wooden and iron desks in neat rows, and a stove in the center of the room.  The ranger described the history of the school and ended his talk with these words:  "This is where separation of church and state began."

What a surprise those words were.  As the author of the book, Should the Children Pray?, I had spent a great deal of time researching the historical, legal, and political issues surrounding public school prayer, and now I found myself standing in a school house with its own connection to that issue.  Of course, I knew it was the First Amendment to America's Constitution that established the relationship between our national government and religious beliefs, and it was Thomas Jefferson in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association that used the description of "building a wall of separation between Church and State."  However, the ranger explained the role of the Freeman School to the issue. 
Several of the Freeman children attended the school, and when their father learned that the teacher was reading passages from the Bible to the children during the day, he asked that she stop.  When she refused, he took the matter to the school board, who supported the teacher's view that her readings "were for the best interest of the pupils."  Having exhausted his appeals to the school authorities, Freeman filed suit in the Gage County District Court, but the court ruled in favor of the school board.

Daniel Freeman was not a man to be easily dissuaded, and he appealed all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court.  At last, on October 9, 1902, the case of Daniel Freeman v. John Scheve, et al,  was decided in favor of Plaintiff Freeman.  The court relied on the Nebraska Constitution rather than the United States Constitution for its ruling.  Citing Article 8, Section 11 of the state constitution, which provides:  "No sectarian instruction shall be allowed in any school or institution supported in whole or in part by the public funds set apart for education purposes," the opinion of the court was that readings from the Bible and prayer, even if no comments were made by the teacher, were prohibited.  Ironically, the named defendant in the suit, John Scheve, was not only an officer of the school board but also an organizer of the First Trinity Lutheran Church.  The feelings within the community during the long period over which this litigation extended (and probably for some time after) must have been intense.  Whether Daniel Freeman was a courageous defender of religious liberty or a meddlesome troublemaker depends on your point of view.  Unexpectedly, I had discovered another way in which Isaac's times are similar to our own.



Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Follow the link at the bottom of this week's post to read about my book, "Should the Children Pray?" for which I was chosen Georgia Author of the Year for Nonfiction. When you reach the site, click on the book title in the column to the right side of the page to reach the page for that book.

Michael Hathaway said...

This was truly surprising and fascinating!

The Blog Fodder said...

It is too bad that religion has come to be so divisive in American society. There seems to be no acceptance of a plurality of religion anymore by certain groups so I agree totally with your separation of church and state. I hope you can keep it though am not an optimist.
We never had a problem in Canada with religion in the schools until the last few decades. Initially there were Protestants and Catholics so the schools were automatically "Christian". In Saskatchewan at least, in the public school system the religion (P or C) of the majority of students decided the religion of the school. Catholics could also set up a Catholic school board and designate their school taxes to it.
Every day opened with Oh, Canada and the Lord's Prayer. In my father's readers were various chapters of the bible considered good literature and studied as such. There was NO proselytizing in the "Protestant" schools and no religion classes. I went to a Catholic school in the public system the last five years. Same curriculum as all other public schools with 30 min of religion from which the dozen or fewer non-Catholics were excused.
Now it is much more complicated as in an urban public school there could be 6 or more religions represented so it is important not to have any religion.