Nebraska Moments

By Donald R. Hickey; Susan A. Wunder et al. | Go to book overview

23. Meyer v. Nebraska (1923)

On May 25, 1920, Robert T. Meyer, a calm and quiet teacher at Zion Lutheran School, located in central Nebraska just four miles north of Hampton, was teaching in German the story of Joseph in bondage in Egypt to a dozen elementary school children in his classroom when he received a visitor. Meyer’s German Bible class met during a designated recess period between 1:00 and 1:30 p.m., a time when the Zion Lutheran School Board had decided it was permissible to teach German classes. The board declared that the language study related to their Lutheran religion. It was a stretch of the Nebraska law, but the board thought this action to be legally permissible and important for the German American community.

Just at the moment when one of the fifth-graders, Raymond Parpart, began his recitation, Hamilton County attorney Fred Edgerton of Aurora entered the classroom. “There was a real hush,” Raymond later recalled. “We were wondering what was going on. We could tell by the look on Teacher Meyer’s face that something pretty serious was happening.” Young Parpart had learned German initially at home from his parents, but after he turned age five, he spoke mostly English, so his parents had arranged for him to take German instruction.

Although Edgerton’s arrival had startled Meyer, the teacher knew that the county attorney was only trying to threaten his classroom. Earlier that year, the Hamilton County school superintendent had warned Meyer to stop teaching German, even outside of his regular school hours. The superintendent had refused to make his request an official one in writing, instead saying, “I am no policeman.”

At first the county attorney paced around the room, and then he asked pupil Parpart to read from the Bible and to explain what he had read in

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