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Williamstown G.A.R. Post Severely Rebuked for Bigotry

Posted By on October 30, 2013

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An article that appeared in the Harrisburg Patriot of 18 September 1906, stated that “Mandamus is Refused in Williamstown Matter.”  The article referred to an opinion handed down by Judge George Kunkel in the matter of the School Board of Williamstown, Dauphin County, and the request of Catholic parents to allow Catholic students to be absent from school during the reading of the Bible.  The article stated:

Some pupils refused to be present during the reading of the Bible.  The Court says that the reading of the Bible is manifestly a matter relating to the management of the schools, which is committed by law to the School Board, beyond the control of the Court.

“If the reading of the Bible is the schools is unlawful, it may be enjoined,” says the opinion; “if it be lawful and a proper exercise of the discretion vested in the School Board in the conduct of the schools, the petitioners have no ground for complaint.  But the question is not necessarily involved her and we do not pass upon it.”

The Patriot then went on to editorialize on the matter:

Judge Kunkel’s decision that the court has no power to compel the school directors of Williamstown Borough to permit certain pupils to come to school at a different time from that perscribed [sic] by the board, is undoubtedly, as good law as it is good sense.  The Judge did not feel called upon to pass upon the right of the School Board to require the reading of the Bible, at the opening session each day.  That question was not specifically raised.  If the parents who do not wish their children to listen to the reading of the Bible in school, are not satisfied the decision made by Judge Kunkel yesterday, they can bring a bill in equity asking for an injunction forbidding the school directors to require the reading of the Bible.

What these two items failed to describe was the manner in which the School Board of Williamstown was “compelled” to make the decision to require Catholic pupils to attend the Bible readings, the additional requirements imposed on Catholics, and the names of the organizations that presented the petitions.  For that information, an examination of the Sacred Heart Review of Boston College is required.  See:  Sacred Heart Review, Boston College, Volume 36, No. 17, October 1906.

The article in the Sacred Heart Review states the following:

At [the time] (August) when the group of small bore gentlemen, called the School Board of Williamstown, met, several petitions were presented to them, demanding two things: (1) the Protestant Bible be read in the schools, and that all the children be compelled to attend the reading; (2) that all the Catholic teachers be dismissed.  The petitions were presented by the Junior Order of United American Mechanics, the Patriotic Sons of America, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and, strange to say, Chester Post, Grand Army of the Republic.  The School Board immediately acquiesced, the Protestant Bible was ordered read and all the Catholic school teachers dismissed.  The matter was carried to the courts, which refused to interfere.

After the courts refused to intervene, the Catholic parents refused to allow their children to attend the public schools and refused to pay the fines for violating the compulsory school attendance laws of Pennsylvania – for which they were arrested and sent to jail in Harrisburg.  Under these circumstances, the Catholic pastor started a school in the parlor of his house pending the renovation of the church basement as a school – to which the Williamstown School Board responded that they would force the health authorities to condemn the basement for school purposes.  Seeing no other alternative, the Catholic pastor, Father Dougherty, took up the matter with the immediate past Commander-in-Chief of the National G.A.R., James Tanner, who responded by issuing a severe rebuke to the Chester Post, G.A.R., at Williamstown:

The very day your letter reached me in Minneapolis, I headed the line of a parade, which numbered twenty-three thousand of my veteran comrades, and by my side in my carriage rode my comrade, personal friend and aide-de-camp, Col. John Ireland, the eminent archbishop of your Church, and forty-eight hours after that parade the representatives of the quarter of a million members of the Grand Army of the Republic in convention assembled by unanimous vote, amid great enthusiasm, elected the venerable archbishop our chaplain-in-chief for the current year.  Let this stand happily as an answer of the supreme body of our order to the little souls who in any part of the nation, under any guise, name or title of the nation, whatsoever, shall endeavor to disqualify from any of the rights of American citizenship any man or woman or body of men or women, who may differ from them in conscientious belief as to how they can most fitly serve their God.

The commander of Chester Post, if he had done his duty, under the plain and unmistakable laws of our order, would instantly ruled out of order any such resolution.  I am as deeply grieved and shocked at this action as you can be.  so far as I can speak for the whole order [G.A.R.] at large, I repudiate it utterly.  On every battlefield I trod I saw the cowled priest of the church ministering to the suffering.  Personally I was the beneficiary of the blessed ministrations of the Sisters of Charity in the hospital.  The flag we all love was drenched time and again in Catholic blood, and those who would now raise such an issue, as you quote, are themselves false to the first principles of American institutions, namely, “Liberty for all.”

In that the national G.A.R. lacked the authority to discipline or expel local G.A.R. posts, nothing further appears to have been done. However, one local result was the establishment of a system of Catholic schools in Williamstown.

Ironically, this bigoted action of Chester Post, G.A.R., came less than two years after the death of Capt. Richard Budd, who with his brother William Budd, (who died in 1897) were Irish immigrants, were founders and supporters of the Catholic Church in Williamstown, and were notable Civil War veterans as well as members of the Chester Post.  See also:  Rev. Hugh A. Logue, Catholic Priest at Williamstown (1888-1901) and Capt. Richard Budd – 96th Pennsylvania Infantry.

Further research is required to identify the members of the Williamstown School Board who voted to require the reading of the Protestant Bible and expel the Catholic teachers – as well as to identify the members of the Chester Post, G.A.R. of Williamstown (the leadership and the rank-and-file) who formulated and presented the petition to the School Board.

In 1963, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case of Abington School District v. Schempp, that school-sponsored Bible reading in the public schools was unconstitutional.  Abington is a township in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.

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James Tanner

James Tanner was a Civil War veteran who lost both legs at the Second Battle of Bull Run.  He was the stenographer who took testimony at the Petersen House of witnesses to Lincoln’s assassination.  His original stenographic notes can be found at the Union League in Philadelphia.

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The articles from the Patriot are from the on-line resources of the Free Library of Philadelphia.  The portrait of James Tanner is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.


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