NATIONAL SUNDAY LAW CRISIS
7: ENFORCEMENT through Police Power
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 nation."
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 few questions:
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 everyone.
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 day!
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