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Vail Valley Voices: What court cases say about religion in government

Editor’s note: Henry Bornstein, a retired attorney who handled constitutional cases and studies the Constitution from a historical as well as legal perspective, uses letters in response to previous commentaries as a foil to help explain the place of religion in the U.S. Constitution. This is part 2.

Had Jim Taylor, of Eagle, actually read the Supreme Court’s 1892 Holy Trinity Church vs. United States with an independent, unbiased view, he would easily see why I stated that there are two parts to this case.

“The facts: The Plaintiff, Holy Trinity Church under a written contract employed an English ‘rector and pastor.’ Federal law prohibited any person, corporation, etc from paying for the transportation of any alien or foreigner into the U.S. under contract or agreement to perform labor or service of any kind in the U.S. This action by the Church on its face clearly violated the Statute. The Circuit Court held the Church to be in violation of the Statute. J. Brewer stated, ‘… and the single question presented for determination is whether it (the Circuit Court) erred in that conclusion.’ “



This is the case, period. There was no other issue whatsoever, including whether or not this is a Christian nation or whether or not Christian laws or principles apply. This was a civil issue: Was the statute in question violated? The statute itself does not raise or address the nature of the services or labor. The fifth section of the statute allows specific exceptions: “As noticed by the circuit judge in his opinion, the fifth section, which makes specific exceptions, among them professional actors, artists, lecturers, singers, and domestic servants, strengthens the idea that every other kind of labor and service was intended to be reached by the first section.”

Please note that doctors, lawyers (solicitors), accountants, Catholics, priests, rectors, pastors, rabbis, etc., were not excepted. It would appear that it should not matter if any of the above had filed this action, the analysis and the court’s decision should have been the same.



J. Brewer then properly proceeded to examine the “motives and history of the act to see what its purpose and intent was, as well as to examine the title and the exact language to see if anything conflicted with the intent of the act.”

At page 463, he stated in part: “Obviously the thought expressed in this reaches only to the work of the manual laborer, as distinguished from that of the professional man. No one reading such a title would suppose that Congress had in its mind any purpose of staying the coming into this country of ministers of the gospel, or, indeed, of any class whose toil is that of the brain.”

Despite the fact that J. Brewer appears to have applied his decision only to “Christian ministers of the gospel,” this statement does and should apply “to the profession does and should apply “to the professional man” and “any class whose toil is that of the brain.”



Thus, as I said above, anyone with an education or a professional who was not a member of the labor class that was intended to be excluded by the stature should be permitted to enter the U.S. to perform the labor or service for which they were hired; i.e., “the professional man” and to “any class who toil is that of the brain.”

J. Brewer stated (P.464): “It appears also from the petitions and in the testimony presented before the committees of Congress that it was this cheap, unskilled labor which was making the trouble, and the influx of which Congress sought to prevent. It was never suggested that we had in this country a surplus of brain toilers, and least of all that the market for the services of Christian ministers was depressed by foreign competition.”

It would be presumptuous and wrong to claim that only Christian ministers were “professional men” or “brain toilers.”

This is where J. Brewer should have stopped this case with the very last line of his opinion: “The judgment will be reversed, and the case remanded for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.”

Instead he proceeded on with seven pages of a religious rant, completely unrelated to the statute, facts and law of the case. This ad-nauseam dicta adds nothing except to give fodder 110-plus years later to the likes of David Barton and his followers.

As stated above, this decision should apply to any “professional and anyone “whose toil is that of the brain.” But Mr. Taylor (and Barton) simply do not care that this case had nothing to do with religion (there is no reference to the Constitution or the First Amendment in the decision). It only had to do with the interpretation of a federal statute, as did the Reynolds case.

In the case of People v. Ruggles, (Supreme Court of New York, 1811) Mr. Taylor’s quote is a misquote of a misquote. He has misquoted Barton’s quote (on P.57), which is in turn is a selectively edited misquote from the original opinion which states in part: “The free, equal, and undisturbed enjoyment of religious opinion, whatever it may be, and free and decent discussions on any religious subject, is granted and secured; but to revile, with malicious and blasphemous contempt, the religion professed by almost the whole community, is an abuse of that right. Nor are we bound, by any expressions in the constitution, as some have strangely supposed, either not to punish at all, or to punish indiscriminately the like attacks upon the religion of Mahomet or of the Grand Lama; and for this plain reason, that the case assumes that we are a Christian people, and the morality of the country is deeply ingrafted upon Christianity, and not upon the doctrines or worship of those imposters. … It is sufficient that the common law checks upon words and actions, dangerous to the public welfare, apply to our case, and are suited to the condition of this and every other people whose manners are refined, and whose morals have been elevated and inspired with a more enlarged benevolence, by means of the Christian religion.”

Here is Mr. Taylor’s extraction: “The morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity, and not upon the doctrines or worship of other religions. In people whose manners are refined, and whose morals have been elevated and inspired with a more enlarged benevolence, it is by means of the Christian religion.”

There were no quotes, no separation dots nor any other indication that this was only a portion using incomplete sentences of a longer paragraph.

The Ruggles case was brought in the state of New York in an New York court. This fact is critical: This is not a First Amendment case brought under the U.S. Constitution. The issue in this case is whether or not the defendant had committed “blasphemous words in contempt of the Christian religion” under New York law, not under the First Amendment.

At the time this case was brought, 1811, the First Amendment only applied to the federal government, not to the states. During this period in our history, most of the states had and did impose a state religion on its citizens either directly of indirectly, which was one form or another of Christianity.

The New York statute in question concerned Article 38 of the New York Constitution, which according to Judge Kent stated in part: “The object of the 38th article of the constitution, was, to “guard against spiritual oppression and intolerance,” by declaring that “the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, should for ever thereafter be allowed within this state, to all mankind.”

Based on my research, there was no statutory law in New York prohibiting blasphemy. In fact that was the defense attorney’s argument: “There are no statutes concerning religion. … The Constitution allows a free toleration to all religions and all kinds of worship. … The prisoner may have been a Jew, a Mahometan or a Socinian, and if so, he had a right, by the Constitution, to declare his opinions.”


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