We earlier mentioned the controversy over a Congressional
rider on a bill that would require the posting of government
troops at the 1892 Chicago Columbian Fair, to help enforce a
proposed federal closing of that fair. At the time that the
Congressional battle was at its very height, the first of three
significant Supreme Court decisions was handed down.
Justice David J. Brewer wrote the ruling in a case
that originally had nothing to do with Sunday. A federal law banning
contract with alien laborers had been enacted, and the Supreme Court
now declared that this law did not apply to churches that wished to
hire pastors from foreign countries. The importance of this ruling was
to be found in certain statements that were added to it by the high
court. One was that the United States was a "Christian
Now, I would want you to understand that the writer
of the book which you are now reading has an intense devotion to the
Bible, Christ, and Christianity; although I myself and many others may
have a deep concern that everyone in America might choose
Christianity, we can know, from a study of history, that we dare not
seek to legislate it! Brewer wrote into the ruling, as part of the
proof that the American government defended the beliefs of the
Christian churches, that this included "the laws respecting the
observance of the Sabbath" and "the general cessation of all
secular business on that day" (Church of the Holy Trinity vs.
United States, 143 U.S. 457 ). The decision of the court in
regard to this ruling was unanimous. The Supreme Court was sending a
message to Congress: "We stand ready to back you—when you are
ready to pass a National Sunday Law!"
Four years later, in 1896, a direct ruling favoring
Sunday laws was handed down by the Supreme Court. Justice M. Harlan,
speaking for the court, upheld a Georgia blue law (Sunday-closing law)
as acceptable under the Constitution because it, the Sunday law, was
nothing more than "an ordinary police regulation established by
the state under its general power to protect the health and morals and
to promote the welfare of its people." This was the Hennington
Case (Hennington vs. Georgia, 163 U.S. 299 ), and was a
landmark Supreme Court decision.
Interestingly enough, the high court had reversed
its reasoning. In 1892, it ruled that Sunday laws would be
Constitutional because they were Christian laws and America was a Christian
nation. In 1896, recognizing that a secular approach was stronger, it
ruled that Sunday laws were Constitutional because they were only
civil "police power" laws.
Four years later, in 1900, a Minnesota
Sunday-closing law against barbers was upheld by the same court (Petite
vs. Minnesota, 177 U.S. 164].
The Supreme Court decisions in 1896 and 1900 said
that State and local Sunday laws were merely "exercises of police
power" and not in any way religious.
But the suggestion of "police power in America
in support of religious beliefs is dynamite! What its advocates do not
realize is that it can work both ways: If police power can be used to
enforce a religious institution, such as Sunday sacredness, then it
can also be used to enforce a religious dogma. And, in
contrast, it can just as easily be used to forbid religious beliefs.
For, indeed, is not that how church-state union always works? The
religious beliefs of the official church are protected and required of
the people—and all other beliefs are forbidden.
The Supreme Court had ruled that Sunday laws were
entirely civil, both in nature and purpose. This ruling is obviously
incorrect. But, that you might see the issues more clearly, here are a
If Sunday was intended to be a civil holiday for
"public benefit and welfare," then why the criminal
penalties for violating it? Fourth of July and Labor Day observance
carry no penalties for nonobservance. And, if the Sunday law is needed
in order to "protect labor," then why fine or imprison the
man who chooses to work on that day? It is said that Sunday
legislation is needed to give equal rest to all. But then why are some
businesses arbitrarily closed on that day while others (such as liquor
and tobacco stores) are kept open? If "blue laws" are needed
to "promote health," then what is inherently more healthful
about Sunday than some other day in the week?
It has been suggested by a number of careful
thinkers that it would be far wiser—and safer—to simply urge one
day of rest and then let each person and family choose their own day!
But, back to this "police power"
reasoning as the Constitutional basis for Sunday laws: Such
nineteenth-century thinking is both dangerous and ominous; for, if
accepted by the Supreme Court in the twentieth century as the
justification of such laws,—it could spell deep trouble for
But, "Oh," someone might say, "This
could never happen! Times have changed. We are more enlightened now.
The court would not pave the way for such a religious police state in
our own time!"
But the Supreme Court did pave the way—and in our