SUNDAY LAW CRISIS
8: The Enlightened
Enter the twentieth century. Would it bring
reprieve from the religious intolerance of the Dark Ages? Or, before
it is done, will a Pandora’s Box of persecution be opened upon
Christian and non-Christians alike?
News Item, Philadelphia, 1931: A policeman
arrested a boy for kicking a football on Sunday. When the father
protested, the policeman shot and killed the father.
News Item, New Jersey, 1924: A New
Jersey court invoked a 1798 blue law and found it illegal to play a
phonograph or listen to the radio on Sunday because this was
"music for the sake of merriment."
News Item, Georgia, 1930: The police of Clayton
County protected and helped a traveling circus to land in town and put
on a show; they also cooperated with airplanes which took people for
rides and made much money; yet they arrested a Bible colporteur for
delivering a book explaining the Bible, on Sunday, since the person
who ordered the book requested that the book be delivered then because
it was the only day he was home.
News Item, Alabama, 1940: In Alabama in the
1940s, it was a misdemeanor to play baseball "in any public
place,"—though there was an exemption for cities with more than
News Item, Virginia, 1932: A deputy
sheriff, of Washington County, arrested two Seventh-day Adventists for
Sunday work, one—a crippled mother who walks on crutches—for
washing clothes on her own premises and the other a man who donated
and hauled a load of wood to a church to heat it for religious
In all the above cases—and more like them,—it
was state and local Sunday laws that brought the trouble. But the
prosecution could only be sporadic—because only state and local laws
were involved. It could be only a major commitment by the federal
government in this area—that a State church could arise out of
legislated Sunday enforcement. This would involve the setting aside—or
ignoring—our amendment freedoms.
The end of the Civil War, in 1865, brought with it
a weakening of state’s rights and a strengthening of federal or
individual rights. On July 28, 1868, the fourteenth amendment to the
Constitution was enacted. It had the effect of strengthening the first
"No state shall make or enforce any law which
shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United
States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or
property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within
its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
In 1875, a still further strengthening of the first
amendment narrowly missed enactment by Congress. James G. Blaine urged
the passage of an amendment that would have removed the favor or
control of religion by state governments, just as certainly as the
first amendment had created a wall of separation between church and
state for the federal government. If it had cleared Congress and been
adopted by the states, it is conceivable that state Sunday laws could
have been eliminated within a decade. Here is the wording of that
"No state shall make any law respecting an
establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
and no money raised by taxation in any state, for the support of
public schools, or derived from any public fund therefore, nor any
public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any
religious sect; nor shall any money so raised, or lands so devoted, be
divided between religious sects or denominations."—The
proposed Blaine amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In 1925, the Supreme Court decreed that first
amendment guarantees were applicable to state and local governments
through the provisions of the fourteenth amendment (Gitlow vs. New
York, 268 U.S. 652 ). And, in 1943, the high court confirmed
that the freedom of religion guarantees of the first amendment applied
to the states through the fourteenth amendment (Thornhill vs.
Alabama, 310 U.S. 88 ; Cantwell vs. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296
; Douglas vs. Jeannette, 319 U.S. 157 ; Murdock vs.
Pennsylvania, 319 U.S. 105 ).
But, in spite of whatever progress might have been
made in the decades since the Supreme Court cases of 1892, 1896, and
1900 (the Soon Hing, Hennington, and Petit cases),—a COMPLETE RETURN
to the 1890s "police powers" thinking of Justices Brewer,
Field, and Harlan took place in four cases brought before the United
States Supreme Court in 1961!
The First Sunday Law in force in America
"Every man and woman shall repair in the morning to the
divine service, and sermons preached upon the Sabbath day, and in the
afternoon to divine service, and catechizing; upon pain for the first
fault to lose their provision and the allowance for the whole week
following; for the second to lose the said allowance and also be
whipped; and for the third to suffer death."—"For
the Colony in Virginea Britannia, Lavves, Morall and Martiall, &
c," in Peter Force, Tracts Relating to the Colonies in North
America, 1844, Vol. 3, No. 2, 10.