June 11 marks passing of priest who was part of landmark freedom of speech case

St. Joseph Catholic Church at 508 N. Third St. in Louisiana, Mo.

LOUISIANA, Mo. — Friday marks the passing of an area Catholic priest who was part of a landmark freedom of speech case.

Father John Cummings was arrested after saying Mass at St. Joseph Church in Louisiana, Mo. on Sept. 3, 1865. It’s what he didn’t say that got him in hot water.

Cummings had failed to take the loyalty oath outlined in the state’s new constitution. It required people across many professions to declare they had never been disloyal to the United States. The move was seen as a vindictive effort to entrap former Confederates from the Civil War.

Cummings was indicted by 12 Pike County jurists, all of whom had taken the oath. A judge who had also sworn allegiance found him guilty, but Cummings refused to pay the fine — which would today be about $7,000.

The Missouri Supreme Court upheld the conviction, but in a 5 to 4 decision the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it.

Mass is still said at St. Joseph in Louisiana. In addition to serving there, Father Cummings was the pastor at a parish near Monroe City, Mo. He died at age 33 on June 11, 1873, and is buried in St. Louis, Mo.

Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black would later call the Cummings decision “one more of the Constitution’s great guarantees of liberty.”

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