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Upon their arrival in America, the early colonists wanted to insure that this land would be very religious. And so they passed religious laws. But, of course, the laws agreed only with the religion of those who enacted them. All others were soon made to feel the sharp sting of persecution for their faith. If you and I had lived back in those days, we probably would have suffered for our own religious beliefs as they did.
In November 1637, Anne Hutchinson held religious meetings in her home in Boston, Massachusetts, in which she showed by Scripture that Christian experience is based on faith and not merely mechanical works. As a result of these meetings, although a mother of fourteen children and expecting another, she was tried for heresy by the court of Boston in November of that year and evicted from the colony.
The 1644 act of the General Court, ordered banishment for those opposed to infant baptism. Because of this, Baptists, who believe in immersion at the age of accountability, had to flee. A Mr. Painter was publicly whipped for refusing to let the authorities sprinkle his child into the established faith of the majority. Obadiah Holmes, a minister, after baptizing a man was beaten so unmercifully that many feared for his welfare.
Another individual, found guilty of having religious views differing from the majority was found guilty of death. Many of the people had reservations about hanging him as they heard his final dramatic plea for mercy from the scaffold. But Cotton Mather, a well-known religious leader of the day, assured them that "justice" was being served. The noose took the life of George Burroughs on August 19, 1692.
Then there was William Penn. He decided to flee the tyranny of religious laws in England by heading to the New World with a group of fellow Christians. In 1682 Cotton Mather learned that his ship was coming. In a letter to John Higginson, Mather said that this ship carrying "100 or more of the heretics and malignants called Quakers, with W. Penn, who is the chief scamp at the head of them" was headed in the direction of the colonies. Mather then confided in him a cunning plot decided on by the General Court. The brig Porpoise was to-waylay Penn's ship, the Welcome, near Cape Cod and sell the "whole lot to Barbados, where slaves fetch good prices in rum and sugar, and we shall not only do the Lord great good by punishing the wicked, but we shall make great good for His minister and people."
Apparently William Penn managed to elude the Porpoise, but other Quakers, such as Mary Dyer, met death in Boston by hanging because their religious beliefs were different. More than an idle threat, this penalty was codified by a statute which explained that the "cursed sect of the Quakers" were to be "sentenced to banishment upon pain of death."
William Penn was well acquainted with religious laws enacted by the government. One morning, several years earlier, when he arrived at the Quaker meeting house on Gracechurch Street, London, on August 14, 1670, he found soldiers barring the entrance. So he preached to the believers in the street outside their meeting-place, and was haled into court for "disturbance of the peace."
At the trial, which began on September 1, Penn acted as his own defense. At one point he asked to know what law his indictment was based on. "Upon the Common-Law," the Recorder snapped. "Where is the Common-Law?" replied Penn. In reply, he was told in so many words that they didn't know where it was. William Meade, his co-defendant, spoke of the Quaker desire for quiet and peace. In reply, the chief judge said, "You ought to have your tongue cut out."
Then, to the dismay of the court, the jury of twelve men returned a verdict of "not guilty" to the charge of unlawful assembly. The court in response threatened them with fines and hinted at torture if they did not return with a verdict of "guilty." When men legislate religious liberty, soon they remove all liberty, as history has so often shown. But the jury would not yield, "Nor will we ever do it!" their foreman shouted in answer to Penn's impassioned appeal, "Give not your right away!"
Repeatedly the jury was sent out for a revised verdict. Repeatedly it returned with an unaltered opinion despite the court's threat to keep the jury "lock'd up, without Meat, Drink, Fire, and Tobacco." When it returned for the fifth time with the same verdict, Penn challenged the court: "What hope is there of ever having Justice done, when juries are threatened, and their verdicts rejected?"
To this, the judge shouted, "Stop his mouth; Jailer, bring fetters and stake him to the ground." And the Recorder [court reporter] added these words at this point in the official trial record: "Till now, I never understood the reason of the policy and prudence of the Spaniards, in suffering [allowing] the Inquisition among them: And certainly it will never be well with us, till something like unto the Spanish Inquisition be in England."
And what was the outcome of the trial? Each of the jury was heavily fined, and together with Penn and Meade they were jailed until the fines were entirely paid.
And with religious laws, there came Sunday laws. The intent of both was the same--to force everyone to abide by the religious views of the legislators who had passed these laws. The first Sunday law in America required church attendance of all, and decreed death upon the third offense. This was a Virginia Sunday law of 1610.
Sunday travel for any purpose not specifically permitted was subject to fine and imprisonment. George Washington. the newly elected President of the United States, narrowly missed such a fine or imprisonment for this offense as he was traveling to the capitol to take office in 1789. The cage, the stocks, heavy fines, and public whippings were the customary reprisal for Sunday Law violations. An important man in enforcing this was the "tithingman," who would enter private homes at random on Sunday morning to see if anyone might be found within who had remained away from religious worship. We are told that he was always busy on Sunday doing sleuth work, spying out other people's liberties, and haling them before the civil magistrate for neglect of religious duties. This is what Sunday laws eventually come to, when the public is willing to permit them to be enacted. "Captain Kemble, of Boston, was, in 1656, set for two hours in the public stocks, for his 'lewd and unseemly behavior,' which consisted in kissing his wife 'publicquely' " on Sunday morning on the doorstep of their home on his return from a three-year ocean voyage. A man who, having fallen into the creek while on his way to church, had returned home to dry his only suit of clothes, was found guilty and "publicly whipped." To stay away from church meant "cumulative mulct." Other equally foolish and drastic laws prohibited the people from walking, driving, or riding horseback on Sunday, unless they went to church or to the cemetery. The iron-fist of religious laws was an everyday fact of colonial life. Stringent Sunday laws were a weekly reminder of this enforcement that entered nearly every phase of human life. Freedom of individual conscience had a long way to go in America.
Roger Williams is called the "father of religious liberty." He opened his small colony of Rhode Island to all men, of whatever faith they might be. He believed that all men should worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences. As a young man in England he had seen the atrocities of the Star Chamber. He had been particularly shocked by the treatment given to Alexander Leighton, a well-known Scottish physician and pastor who was deeply beloved by many for his spiritual and physical ministries to their needs. But then the courts accused him of not agreeing with the established religion enforced by the government. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, fined 10,000 pounds, and facially disfigured,--his ears being cut off, his nose slit, and his face branded with a hot iron. May God have mercy on those who in the name of religious laws bring grief and suffering to their fellow men.
At last, religious freedom came to America, as on November 3, 1791, the First Ten Amendments to the United States Constitution became part of the law of the land. The first sentence of the First Amendment guaranteed that a man's religion henceforth would be secure in America. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Several years later, Thomas Jefferson made this comment: "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declares that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and state." Because of this legal document, the martyrdoms and bloody persecutions of the Dark Ages could not come to America. We were declared safe from the Inquisition of Spain and the massacre of the Huguenots, the slaughter of the Waldenses and the Tower of London, the "holy" wars and the rack, the screw and the stake, the fines and the imprisonments and the executions.
Your personal liberties depend on these Ten Amendments to our Constitution. Never let them be taken from you by the enactment of religious laws in America, --no matter what the pretext.
Patrick Henry wrote the original draft of the First Amendment, using the words, "fullest toleration in the exercise of religion." But James Madison was determined that nothing other than "free exercise" should be written here. And he told us why: A state which could "tolerate" could also prohibit. We call these Ten Amendments, the "Bill of Rights." The freedoms you enjoy every day of your life in your home and as you walk the streets, are dependent on that Bill of Rights.
But gradually, religious laws began coming in through state legislatures. Among the most common of these were Sunday-closing laws. When in the 1820's, these laws finally reached to Congress, in a petition to close the postal service on Sundays, Senator Richard M. Johnson fought the suggestion that the "observance of Sunday was connected with the civil interests of the government." In reply, Johnson said that it was the function of Government to protect all citizens "in the enjoyment of their religious as well as civil rights, and not to determine for any whether they shall esteem one day above another." The House Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads was empowered by Congress to study this question and in its official report said that throughout the history of the Christian church, Christians "as soon as [they were] clothed with political power, lost the meek spirit which their creed inculcated, and began to inflict on other religions, and on dissenting sects of their own religion, persecutions more aggravated than those which their own apostles had endured. The ten persecutions of pagan emperors were exceeded in atrocity by the massacres and murders perpetrated by Christian hands; and in vain shall we examine the records of imperial tyranny for an engine of cruelty equal to the holy Inquisition. Every religious sect, however meek its origin, commenced the work of persecution as soon as it acquired political power."
The report recognized the absurdities that might result once a Federal Sunday law was adopted. If it is sinful to carry letters, "it must be equally sinful for individuals to write, carry, receive, or read them." Therefore, "it would seem to require that these acts should be made penal [criminal] to complete the system [of religious enforcement]." Ultimately, the House Report warned, laws could be established to suppress travel on the Lord's Day, except for church attendance. Newspapers would be unobtainable, as printing, delivering, and receiving them would become illegal. Eventually even conversations would be limited, except on religious topics,--and we would be back to the oppressive religious laws of the colonies!
This devastating analysis by Congress of the religious and Sunday law controversy in 1829 and 1830 was so thorough, and so complete was the victory for religious freedom in America, that not until 1888 was any serious move again made for national Sunday-observance legislation.
But on the state level, matters were different. Unshaken by the federal Bill of Rights, state after state passed Sunday laws, and for obviously stated religious reasons.
In Maryland, a man was arrested on the charge of husking corn on Sunday. The accuser was a local minister who, passing on the road, saw him doing this act on the porch of his house. A constable was sent with a warrant for his arrest, which at the court trial he admitted serving on Sunday. The accused' a Mr. Judefind, conscientiously kept the Bible Sabbath (which is the seventh day, Saturday), and so was doing light work on Sunday around home. The judge sentenced him to thirty days in jail, with the comment that though the state law favored Sunday, free exercise of religion was permitted by it to all in the state. At Shady Side, Maryland, a "Watchman's Association" was formed for the avowed purpose of spying on the Sunday conduct of folk in the community. Several citizens were jailed as a result. It was being seen that a stiff enforcement of Sunday legislation brought a return to the tension and tattle and fear tactics of the early colonial religious laws.
In Georgia, Day Conklin was found guilty of chopping wood on Sunday. The Friday before, much of his family's possessions had been soaked in a cloud burst while moving from one house to another. The weather turned bitterly cold and by Sunday morning his supply of wood being gone, he chopped wood as a last resort for the protection of his family. The fine and court cost amounted to $83--a year's salary back then.
In Arkansas, J. L. James worked in the rain to repair a house for a widow who was about to be evicted. The widow was a Methodist. The informer was a minister of a different church, the local Missionary Baptist Church, who in court admitted under oath that he habitually chopped wood for his own use on Sundays. And then there was Mr. Swearingen. He lived in Arkansas, too. Arrested for working quietly by his home on Sunday morning, he was jailed with his son for twenty-five days. Following this, the only horse of this elderly man was sold at auction to pay the fine and court costs which totaled thirty-eight dollars. But when the horse only sold for twenty-seven dollars, the sheriff came back for his only cow to pay the eleven dollars still due on the fine and court cost,--plus an additional twenty-five for "board" for himself and his son while in jail.
But it was reserved for Tennessee to put its Sunday-Law violators, after paying the usual fine, into the chain gang. Good citizens suddenly became criminals because they helped their wives and families around the home on the first day of the week. Marched through the streets of town from the jailhouse each morning, they were led to an assigned area where chained to cast-iron balls, they would split rocks or prepare stone walls.
A partial review of court records reveals that in a one year period between 1895 and 1896, over seventy-five American citizens were convicted of Sunday law offenses and were sentenced after fines to jails, chain gangs, etc., and served a total of 1,144 days. Speaking of the insidious effects of religious laws in our country, William Lloyd Garrison, the well-known abolitionist, had said about Sunday laws: "If you do not obey me, I will put my hands into your pocket, and take out as much as I please in the shape of a fine or if I find nothing there, I will put you in prison; or if you resist enough to require it, I will shoot you dead . . . Passing a law, forbidding me or you to do on a particular day, what is in itself right . . . is nothing better than sheer usurpation."
Years ago, on a Sunday afternoon in Plainfield, New Jersey, the folk in the community gathered at the ball park to watch a baseball game. A 1912 magazine reporting on what happened, tells us, "Certain of the clergy had determined that no more Sunday baseball should be played in that place, and those in favor of the game also determined that they would defy the decision of the clergy men." This doesn't sound real and yet it happened in America about seventy years ago. "Play ball!" the umpire shouted. The pitcher waited for the catcher's signal. The batter dusted his fingers and took a tighter grip on his bat. Just then the clergyman, accompanied by a deputy sheriff, entered the ball field. "We have warrants for the arrest of anyone who participates in this game," called out the minister as the deputy waved the legal papers. It is an interesting fact that religious laws cause people to lose their respect for religion. And this is unfortunate, for in our day we need so much more of Jesus and the precious gospel that He brought to our world. And this experience with God we need to share with others. But the meaning of Christianity is blotted out when it is brought to another by force and legislation. And the result of such intimidation and coercion was quickly seen that Sunday afternoon in Plainfield. The citizens recognized that their rights were being abridged, and in disgust they chased the clergyman to his house, while the deputy persuaded the few remaining in the ball park to go home,--and the game was called on account of Sunday laws.
State laws began controlling recreational activities on Sunday, and exist up to the present time in a large number of our states. These laws, although often not enforced, cover a large number of sports events. These include activities such as shooting, hunting, card playing or racing, football, tennis, golf, theatrical events, circuses, shows, basketball, hockey, skating, field contests, bowling, motion pictures, wrestling, swimming, opera, soccer, auto racing, plays, ballet, acrobatic feats, and polo. At any one time, a significant number of Americans could be arrested in our land for being "criminals for a day"-- doing something on Sunday which isn't "legal." Religious laws and Sunday laws are like sleeping bears. They are dangerous even though they may appear to be sleeping. In South Dakota, for example, baseball is not only forbidden, but any citizen that advertises it or owns the ball park it is held in, is liable to criminal action as well. In Maine, the innholder is faced with the threat of punishment for the "crimes" of his guests who spend Sunday "idly at play or doing any secular business." What is the hotel-keeper to do if he observes two guests playing a game of chess in the lounge? To act is to risk losing his customers; not to act is to risk legal action in the local court.
The recreations and businesses prohibited by these various laws are not "wrong" the rest of the week. They only become illegal this one day. The reason underlying this legislative problem is religious coercion. Here are some of the phrases used on the state law books within the past few years: Arkansas: "Sabbath-breaking" and "Christian Sabbath." Colorado: "Sabbath day." Delaware: "worldly activity." Florida: "proper observance of the Sabbath." Maryland: "Sabbath day." Massachusetts: "Lord's Day" and "secular business." Michigan: "secular business." Minnesota: "breaks the Sabbath." New York: "Sabbath breaking." North Carolina: "Lord's day." North Dakota: "Sabbath breaking." Oklahoma: "Sabbath breaking." Pennsylvania: "worldly employment." Rhode Island: "breakers of the Sabbath." South Carolina: "Sabbath day" and "worldly labor." South Dakota: "Sabbath breaking" and "worldly uses." Tennessee: "work on the Sabbath." Vermont: "secular business." Washington: "observance of the Sabbath." West Virginia: "On a Sabbath day." Wyoming: "desecration of the Sabbath day."
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there had been little to discourage Sunday-law promoters. Colonial blue laws had pretty much continued,--right on past the founding of our nation, and the framing of the First Amendment. Religious-observance laws had continued on through oppressive state laws. And common folk had suffered as a result.
Late in the nineteenth century the Sunday-law advocates felt strong enough to move on to even bigger things. Despite the safeguards of the First Amendment, highly organized religious interests and lobbies began putting pressure on Congress for a National Sunday Law.
At the 1887 convention of the National Reform Association, Dr. David McAllister received the full support of the delegates when he said, "Those who oppose this work now will discover, when the religious amendment [a National Sunday Law] is made to the Constitution, that if they do not see fit to fall in with the majority, they must abide the consequences, or seek some more congenial clime." In these words is unveiled the motives and the methods of the religious-law enthusiasts. The motive is to require others to obey their ideas. The method is one of threat and force.
Just a century earlier, Benjamin Franklin had said, "When a Religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself, and when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the Civil Power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one." How well it would have been if the citizenry--and the churches--had never forgotten those words.
A hundred years later, in 1863, representatives of eleven Protestant denominations met in Xenia, Ohio, for the purpose of creating a national Christian government in America. The National Reform Association openly declared its intention to destroy Jefferson's "wall of separation" between church and state. and pledged itself "to promote needed reforms in the action of the government touching the Sabbath" and "to secure such an amendment to the Constitution of the United States as will declare the nation's allegiance to Jesus Christ and its acceptance of the moral laws of the Christian religion, and so indicate that this is a Christian nation, and place all the Christian laws, institutions, and usages of our government on an undeniably legal basis in the fundamental laws of the land."
As a result of continued pressure on Congress, the House Judiciary Committee reported that it was "inexpedient to legislate upon the subject" since the founding fathers of the republic had carefully considered the matter and had chosen to lay the foundation for a government which "was to be the home of the oppressed of all nations of the earth, whether Christian or pagan." This Congressional committee pointed out that the founders of our nation had reasoned "with great unanimity that it was inexpedient to put anything into the Constitution or frame of government which might be construed to be a reference to any religious creed or doctrine." (House Reports, Vol. 1, 43rd Congress, 1st Session, Report No. 143.)
Then came Senate Bill 2983 in the year 1888. New Hampshire's Senator Blair sponsored a sweeping "Lord's Day" measure "To Promote Its Observance as a Day of Religious Worship." Backed by several religious organizations, it was specifically calling for a ban on "secular work, labor, or business" in interstate commerce, transportation, postal service, military musters and drills, that would "interfere with or disturb the people in the enjoyment of the first day of the week, . . . or its observance as a day of religious worship." Also condemned was "any play, game, or amusement, or recreation" that would disturb others on this day. Speaking at the Hearings on the proposal before the Senate Committee on Education and Labor, were a long line of ministers who spoke on behalf of its passage. If this bill had passed, it would have brought a return of the stern requirements of our colonial way of life. But, fortunately, it died in committee. In the next half century Congress was to consider almost a hundred measures designed to honor Sunday.
On the local and state levels, Sunday laws continued to flourish. In San Francisco, a "Ministerial Union" of clergymen was organized to urge more rigorous enforcement of existing religious laws. Under this pressure, Police Chief Crowley promised arrests "the very next Sunday." --And arrest he did. In less than a month's time the San Francisco dragnet had produced nearly 1,600 lawbreakers--all good citizens who were now declared to be one-day-in-the-week criminals--and flooded the court dockets. Rigid enforcement produced such a bottleneck in the city courts that the municipal police had to back away from enforcement. Men don't realize what is coming when Sunday laws are passed. For when they are enforced, it is possible to interpret the actions of most people as criminal--on one day in each week. And what had happened in San Francisco in March of 1882--woke up the entire State. And it resulted in a vote, that November in the state-wide elections, against the politicians whose platforms included Sunday legislation.
As the decades dawned toward the Twentieth Century, a new twist in Sunday legislation appeared. Instead of calling it a law "in protection of the Lord's Day," it was now called a civil law "in protection of the rights of the workingman," and was declared to be "a legitimate exercise of the police power of the State."
Using this approach, it was thought that it would now be possible to support the beliefs, doctrines and practices of favored churches in America. For with this technique it was hoped that it would be easier to sidestep the First Amendment. What was not realized was that if such laws were passed, eventually the dogmas of certain churches would gain the ascendancy, and those of other churches would be suppressed. This would ultimately lead to a return to religious persecution such as the world has experienced for thousands of years.
This declaring that Sunday laws were merely "civil laws required by the State," was just courtroom language for what was obviously a type of religious law. For if Sunday was solely intended to be a civil holiday for the public welfare, then why were there criminal penalties for those who used it for holiday purposes? And if the day is designed to protect labor, then why is the man fined who works by his own choice on that day? That surely isn't helping the workingman. If the law is supposed to give men rest and relaxation, why then are they fined if they use it for recreation? Why are some classes of Sunday labor, business and recreation permitted by this kind of law, while others are not? Sunday laws always treat people unfairly. Some businesses are favored, some religions are favored, some amusements are favored, --while others are discouraged. Why? Sunday laws are clearly opposed to Federal "Equal Opportunity Laws"--for they discriminate against certain religions. Why are they permitted? Why not merely guarantee to every man this rest,--and let him choose his own day? If blue laws are to promote better health, is there anything inherent in the nature of the day, Sunday, that is more healthful than any other day of the week? In the valid work-hour regulations of state governments, there is no designation as to the days when the work must be performed, nor the hours of the day when work must commence, nor the time of the day or night when men must sleep. What then entitles Sunday observance to this restrictive treatment?
In 1868 the Fourteenth Amendment became the law of the land, and it greatly strengthened the power of the First Amendment, by requiring that State laws guarantee certain basic freedoms to the individual.
"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."
By 1925 the United States Supreme Court had decreed that the laws enacted by state and local governments were subject to the First Amendment through the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment (Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652, 1925). And by 1943 the court had confirmed that the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment also applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment (Thornhill v. Alabama, 310 U.S. 88, 1940; Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 1940; Douglas v. Jeannette, 319 U.S. 157, 1943; Murdock v. Pennsylvania, 319 U.S. 105, 1943). This greatly increased your freedom to personal religious beliefs and practices, according to your own choice.
But while this strengthening of human rights was being made by the Supreme Court, state Sunday laws continued, in violation of Constitutional Amendments, to be used as tools of religious coercion. In 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." A Sunday-law "spy" peering into the privacy of a Baltimore home in 1926 and seeing a man pressing his pants on Sunday, reported the act and the man was brought into court and fined. In Pennsylvania, the "Pittsburgh Sabbath Association" had the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra arrested for performing a concert on Sunday. In Washington County, Virginia, in 1932, a deputy sheriff arrested two women--one a crippled mother who walked with crutches--for washing clothes in her home. In a Philadelphia suburb it is recorded that a policeman arrested a boy for kicking a football on Sunday. When the father protested, the . . . policeman shot and killed the father." This was 1931.
In a 1961 case in which a Sunday law was tacitly approved by the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren stated that Sunday Laws would always remain a violation of the First Amendment whenever it was demonstrated that their objective was "to use the State's coercive power to aid religion." (McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420, 1961).
Eventually America will come to a showdown over this issue of religious laws. Blue laws are unconsciously being used to pierce the "wall of separation" that protects us from the church-state controls of the Dark Ages.
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