In the face of immigration restriction, Prohibition, a revived Ku Klux Klan, and widespread anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism, immigrant groups asserted the validity of cultural diversity and identified toleration of difference—religious, cultural, and individual—as the essence of American freedom. In effect, they reinvented themselves as “ethnic” Americans, claiming an equal share in the nation’s life but, in addition, the right to remain in many respects culturally distinct. The Roman Catholic Church urged immigrants to learn English and embrace “American principles,” but it continued to maintain separate schools and other institutions. In 1924, the Catholic Holy Name Society brought 10,000 marchers to Washington to challenge the Klan and to affirm Catholics’ loyalty to the nation. Throughout the country, organizations like the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (founded in 1916 to combat anti-Semitism) and the National Catholic Welfare Council lobbied, in the name of “personal liberty,” for laws prohibiting discrimination against immigrants by employers, colleges, and government agencies. The Americanization movement, declared a Polish newspaper in Chicago, had “not the smallest particle of the true American spirit, the spirit of freedom, the brightest virtue of which is the broadest possible tolerance.”

The Zion Lutheran Church in Nebraska where Robert Meyer was arrested for teaching a Bible lesson in German, in violation of state law. The case led to the landmark Supreme Court decision of Meyer v. Nebraska, an important rebuke to World War I xenophobia.

The efforts of immigrant communities to resist coerced Americanization and of the Catholic Chinch to defend its school system broadened the definition of liberty for all Americans. In landmark decisions, the Supreme Court struck down Oregon’s law, mentioned earlier, requiring all students to attend public schools and Nebraska’s prohibiting teaching in a language other than English—one of the anti-German measures of World War I. “The protection of the Constitution,” the decision in Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) declared, “extends to all, to those who speak other languages as well as to those born with English on the tongue,” a startling rebuke to enforced Americanization. The decision expanded the freedom of all immigrant groups. In its aftermath, federal courts overturned various Hawaii laws imposing special taxes and regulations on private Japanese-language schools. In these cases, the Court also interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal liberty to include the right to “marry, establish a home and bring up children” and to practice religion as one chose, “without interference from the state.” The decisions gave pluralism a constitutional foundation and paved the way for the Court’s elaboration, two generations later, of a constitutional right to privacy.

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