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Early Court Decisions on the Separation of Church and State


Runkel v. Winemiller, 1799

"Religion is of general and public concern and on its support depend, in great measure, the peace and good order of government, the safety and happiness of the people. By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion; and all sects and denominations of Christians are placed upon the same equal footing and are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty."



The People v. Ruggles, 1811

"[W]e are a Christian people and the morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity and not upon the doctrines or worship of those imposters [other religions].... [We are a] people whose manners... and whose morals have been elevated and inspired... by means of the Christian religion.

Though the constitution has discarded religious establishments, it does not forbid judicial cognizance of those offenses against religion and morality which have no reference to any such establishment... This [constitutional] declaration, noble and magnanimous as it is, when duly understood, never meant to withdraw religion in general, and with it the best sanctions of moral and social obligation from all consideration and notice of the law..."



Updegraph v. The Commonwealth, 1824

"The assertion is once more made that Christianity never was received as part of the common law of this Christian land; and... if it was, it was virtually repealed by the Constitution of the United States...

We will first dispose of what is considered the grand objection -- the constitutionality of Christianity... Christianity, general Christianity, is and always has been a part of the common law... not Christianity founded on any particular religious tenets; not Christianity with an established church... but Christianity with liberty of conscience to all men.

Thus this wise legislature framed this great body of laws for a Christian country and a Christian people.... [T]hus it is irrefragably proved that the laws and institutions of this State are built on the foundation of reverence for Christianity.... In this the Constitution of the United States has made no alteration nor in the great body of the laws which was an incorporation of the common-law doctrine of Christianity."



City of Charlston v. Benjamin, 1846

"Christianity is part of the common law of the land, with liberty of conscience to all. It has always been so recognized.... If Christianity is a part of the common law, its disturbance is punishable as common law. The U.S. Constitution allows it as part of the common law.... The observance of Sunday is one of the usages of the common law recognized by our U.S. and State Governments.... Christianity is part and parcel of the common law.... Christianity has reference to the principles of right and wrong... it is the foundation of those morals and manners upon which our society is formed; it is their basis. Remove it and they would fall... it [morality] has grown upon the basis of Christianity."

"What constitutes the standard of good morals? Is it not Christianity? There certainly is none other.... The day of moral virtue in which we live would, in an instant, if that standard were abolished, lapse into the dark and murky night of Pagan immorality...."

"In the Courts over which we preside, we daily acknowledge Christianity as the most solemn part of our administration. A Christian witness, having no scruples about placing his hand upon the book, is sworn upon the holy Evangelists -- the books of the New Testament which testify of our Savior's birth, life, death, and resurrection; this is so common a matter that it is little thought of as an evidence of the part which Christianity has in the common law...."



Commonwealth v. Nesbit, 1859

"By our... laws against vice and immorality we do not mean to enforce religion; we admit that to be impossible. But we do mean to protect our customs, no matter that they may have originated in our [Christian] religion; for they are essential parts of our social life.... Law can never become entirely infidel; for it is essentially founded on the moral customs of men and the very generating principles of these is most often religion."



Lindenmuller v. The People, 1860

"It would be strange for a people Christian in doctrine and worship, many of whom or whose forefathers had sought these shores for the privilege of worshipping God in simplicity and purity of faith, and who regarded religion as the basis of their civil liberty and the foundation of their rights, should, in their zeal to secure to all the freedom of conscience which they valued so highly, solemnly repudiate and put beyond the pale of the law the religion which was dear to them as life and dethrone the God who they openly and avowedly professed to believe had been their protector and guide as a people."

"All agreed that the Christian religion was engrafted upon the law and entitled to protection as the basis of our morals and the strength of our government."



Davis v. Beason, 1889

"Bigamy and polygamy are crimes by the laws of all civilized and Christian countries. They are crimes by the laws of the United States.... To extend exemption from punishment for such crimes would be to shock the moral judgment of the community. To call their advocacy a tenet of religion is to offend the common sense of mankind....

Probably never before in the history of this country has it been seriously contended that the whole punitive power of the government for acts recognized by the general consent of the Christian world... must be suspended in order that the tenets of a religious sect... may be carried out without hindrance."



Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 1892

"No purpose of action against religion can be imputed to any legislation, state or national, because this is a religious people.... These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic [official, governmental] utterances that this is a Christian nation."



United States v. Macintosh, 1931

"We are a Christian people... according to one another the equal right of religious freedom and acknowledging with reverence the duty of obedience to the will of God."



Zorach v. Clausen, 1952

"The First Amendment, however, does not say that in every and all respects there shall be a separation of Church and State.... Otherwise the State and religion would be aliens to each other -- hostile, suspicious, and even unfriendly....

We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.... When the State encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities... it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not, would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.... [W]e find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence.... We cannot read into the Bill of Rights such a philosophy of hostility to religion."

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