LOUISIANA, Mo. -- Labor Day marks the anniversary of an important freedom of religion case that took place at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Louisiana, Mo., on Sept. 3, 1865.
The case's resolution, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1867, helped lead to the elimination of loyalty oaths, which were popular after the end of the Civil War.
"It's a remarkable story and was really significant for the time," said the Rev. Louis Dorn, who retired as priest of St. Joseph Catholic Church on Wednesday. "It also was remarkable for the ecumenical partnership that occurred during it."
The Missouri Constitution of 1865 mandated that anyone wanting to hold a specific position in the public and private sector had to take a loyalty oath and pledge allegiance to the Union. Those who didn't take the oath were subject to a $500 fine and/or imprisonment for six months.
The deadline to take the oath in 1865 was Sept. 2. The Rev. John A. Cummings did not take the oath, said Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church the next day, and was arrested by the Pike County sheriff after the service. A Bowling Green grand jury comprised of men who had taken the oath indicted Cummings on Sept. 4.
"He allegedly said my loyalty is to God," Dorn said of the story familiar to many Pike County residents.
A few days later at Cummings' trial he was found guilty, sent to jail and fined $500, which is more than $7,300 in today's dollars.
His conviction was appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court and heard in October 1865. The lawyer for Cummings argued that the priest's freedom of religion had been violated and that the oath was "ex post facto" law, which means it was unconstitutional because it punished people for actions that were legal when committed. The court upheld the local ruling and said the oath merely asked people to affirm they were not guilty of treason or disloyalty to the Union.
Records show that St. Louis Archbishop Peter Kenrick believed that the oath took away religious liberty, and Episcopal and Methodist bishops agreed. It was Kenrick who paid for nationally known lawyers to represent Cummings at the U.S. Supreme Court level.
On Jan. 14, 1867, the court ruled in favor of Cummings with a 5-4 vote.
Justice Stephen Field, writing for the majority, said the oath was of "objectionable character" and subverted presumption of innocence and altered "the rules of evidence."
Field added that loyalty oaths "assume that the parties are guilty; they call upon the parties to establish their innocence; and they declare that such innocence can be shown only in one way -- by an inquisition, in the form of an expurgatory oath."
Cummings afterward served at St. Stephen Catholic Church in Indian Creek.
Missouri lawmakers repealed loyalty oaths in 1871 and adopted in 1875 a new constitution without it.
In the decades after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision, the Cummings case was cited anytime loyalty oaths were brought up, especially during the Cold War, when people were fearful of others belonging to the communist party.
Cummings died June 1873 at age 33 and is buried in St. Louis.