The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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The People v. Ruggles

1811 NY The People v. Ruggles, 8 Johns 545 (Sup Ct N.Y. 1811) a Blasphemy case is cited 12 times in The Myth of Separation
Legal analysis and writing by Susan Batte, Esq.

Major claims by Barton in his publications:

From The Myth of Separation, page 55-58, Barton writes:

This case was not only cited in the previous case, it was also the second case cited in Holy Trinity. The offense and surrounding facts are described from the case:

The defendant was indicted ... in December, 1810, for that he did, on the 2nd day of September, 1810 ... wickedly, maliciously, and blasphemously, utter, and with a loud voice publish, in the presence and hearing of divers good and Christian people, of and concerning the Christian religion, and of and concerning Jesus Christ, the false, scandalous, malicious, wicked and blasphemous words following: "Jesus Christ was a bastard, and his mother must be a whore," in contempt of the Christian religion. .. . The defendant was tried and found guilty, and was sentenced by the court to be imprisoned for three months, and to pay a fine of $500.

The attorney for the prisoner presented his defense:

There are no statutes concerning religion.... The constitution allows a free toleration to all religions and all kinds of worship.. .. Judaism and Mahometanism may be preached here, without any legal animadversion. . .. The prisoner may have been a Jew, a Mahometan, or a Socinian: and if so, he had a right, by the constitution, to declare his opinions.

The prosecuting attorney countered:

While the constitution of the State has saved the rights of conscience, and allowed a free and fair discussion of all points of controversy among religious sects, it has left the principal engrafted on the body of our common law, that Christianity is part of the laws of the State, untouched and unimpaired.

The Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court during this case was Chancellor James Kent, author of Commentaries on American Law. There were few purely American legal precedents or writings in the young nation on which to rely in its early years; consequently, lawyers and judges studied and applied the writings of Sir William Blackstone, an English judge and author of Blackstone's Commentaries on the Law. However, as time progressed and experience accumulated in the young nation, American writings and standards were developed. These were due, in large part, to the four-volume work written by James Kent: Commentaries on American Law. Kent's writings, while heavily dependent upon Blackstone, eventually replaced Blackstone's as the standard in America.

In addition to producing his Commentaries. Kent also originated the practice of written decisions in New York. After his years in that state's supreme court, he went on to a nine-year term as the head of the Court of Chancery--a specialized court dealing with complicated and intricate situations that regular courts were unable to handle. James Kent was much more than an average judge in a northeastern state--he was one of the premier individuals in the development of legal practice in the United States. His words on law carry significant weight and importance. Notice his decision in this case:

Such words uttered with such a disposition were an offense at common law. In Taylor's case the defendant was convicted upon information of speaking similar words, and the Court . . . said that Christianity was parcel of the law, and to cast contumelious reproaches upon it, tended to weaken the foundation of moral obligation, and the efficacy of oaths. And in the case of Rex v. Woolston, on a like conviction, the Court said . . . that whatever strikes at the root of Christianity tends manifestly to the dissolution of civil government. . . . The authorities show that blasphemy against God and . . . profane ridicule of Christ or the Holy Scriptures (which are equally treated as blasphemy), are offenses punishable at common law, whether uttered by words or writings . . . because it tends to corrupt the morals of the people, and to destroy good order. Such offenses have always been considered independent of any religious establishment or the rights of the Church. They are treated as affecting the essential interests of civil society. . . .

We stand equally in need, now as formerly, of all the moral discipline, and of those principles of virtue, which help to bind society together. The people of this State, in common with the people of this country, profess the general doctrines of Christianity, as the rule of their faith and practice; and to scandalize the author of these doctrines is not only ... impious, but . . . is a gross violation of decency and good order. Nothing could be more offensive to the virtuous part of the community, or more injurious to the tender morals of the young, than to declare such profanity lawful.. ..

The free, equal, and undisturbed enjoyment of religious' opinion, whatever it may be, and free and decent discussions on any religious subject, is granted and secured; but to revile ... the religion professed by almost the whole community, is an abuse of that right. . . . We are a Christian people, and the morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity, and not upon the doctrines or worship of those impostors [other religions].. .. [We are] 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. . . . To construe it as breaking down the common law barriers against licentious, wanton, and impious attacks upon Christianity itself, would be an enormous perversion of its meaning. . . . Christianity, in its enlarged sense, as a religion revealed and taught in the Bible, is not unknown to our law. . . . The Court are accordingly of opinion that the judgment below must be affirmed:

[that blasphemy against God, and contumelious reproaches, and profane ridicule of Christ or the Holy Scriptures, are offenses punishable at the common law, whether uttered by words or writings].

These are powerful words, written by one of the fathers of American legal practice! His specific statement concerning Christianity and the Constitution bears repeating:

To construe it [the Constitutional as breaking down the common law barriers against licentious, wanton, and impious attacks upon Christianity itself, would be an enormous perversion of its meaning.

In Addition:

On page 248 of his The Myth of Separation, David Barton provides us with a highly edited quotation from The People v. Ruggles, an 1811 decision by the Supreme Court of the State of New York. The case involved a man arrested for publicly criticizing the Christian religion. Barton quotes the decision (written by Chief Justice James Kent) as follows:

Offenses against religion and morality...strike at the root of moral obligation, and weaken the security of the social ties.... This [First Amendment] declaration...never meant to withdraw religion...and with it the best sanctions of moral and social obligation from all consideration and notice of the law.

For more information on this case, please see: Did the Supreme Court of New York, in an 1811 decision, ever say that the First Amendment was "never meant to withdraw religion...from all consideration and notice of the law?"


Legal analysis and writing by Susan Batte, Esq.

  1. The number of prosecutions [for blasphemy] was so few and the records so sparse that the prosecutions seem unlikely, inexplicable.

  2. The American temperament looked askance at prosecutions for bad opinions.

  3. Appellate records exist, though appellate decisions on blasphemy occur infrequently. In the American Judicial system, trial courts are courts of record; however, rarely is a trial court judge called upon to render an opinion for publication. The practice has become more common these days, but the effect of such trial court opinions is the same. In our legal system, trial court opinions have no precedent value. Such opinions exist only to serve the particular court from which it originates, and even then, if a court contains more than one court room and more than one judge, opinions may vary from courtroom to courtroom.

  4. Kent is considered the American version of Blackstone, and since opinion in People v. Ruggles exists as the first reported state case on blasphemy, there has to be some suspicion that he heard the appeal simply to give him the opportunity to write about his interpretation of blasphemy law in America. I imagine such an event would occasion a great deal of publicity.

  5. A case of first impression in New York means that People v. Ruggles would have to rely on persuasive authority only. That is, no law would particularly require Kent to follow certain legal precedent. If another state had heard a blasphemy case, those opinions could only be used to Persuade Kent to follow their view. As it was, no other state case existed, so Kent quite naturally turned to English law.

  6. It is curious that no records of People v. Ruggles exist and that we do not even know the first name of Ruggles. This leads me to believe even more so that the case was merely a vehicle for Kent to vent on views he knew were bound to cause a stir and rustle up some publicity for him.

  7. The opinions presented to the court were 1) they could have created a common law principle that blasphemy could not be prosecuted because such prosecutions conflicted with the state constitutional guarantee of religious liberty. 2) They could have rejected the English law concept of Blasphemy. 3) They could have found that Ruggles remarks were protected under free speech guarantees in the state constitution.

  8. Kent as ultra-Federalist: Because Kent was an ultra federalist, he viewed the constitutional protections guaranteed under the Federal Constitution and Bill of Rights as pertaining to limitations on the Federal government only. In addition, the reservation of rights to the states (10th amendment) would have allowed Kent as a State court judge, to write his only law concerning religion, religious establishments, and criminal punishment for reviling the Christian religion.

  9. More cases concerning Sunday laws ( laws prohibiting labor or employment on Sundays, and preventing recovery for injuries inflicted on Sunday if the person injured engaged in any activity outside the charitable exception) than blasphemy in the time period prior to the beginning of the 20th century.

  10. In New York, prior to Ruggles, Sunday laws existed, but there were no other statutes concerning religion, nor were there any cases (common law) decided in New York courts concerning Christianity, religion, etc.

  11. The issue was "Whether blasphemy constituted an offense, absent a statute criminalizing it. This means that either the judge had to have a case presented before him which had decided to criminalize blasphemy, or the judge had to declare that after thoroughly examining any and all sources available to him (legal and non-legal) he had discovered that blasphemy was in fact criminalized and punishable. Often times, judges would use analogy I and if one set of behaviors had been found to be criminal and these behaviors were similar to the ones complained of in the indictment, then criminal behavior could be discovered and the defendant punished.

  12. Kent however decided that where no statute from his own legislature existed to guide him, he was free to follow English Common law. After all there was a provision in his constitution which had adopted English common law (except such alterations as the legislature might make, and excluding all part of the common law "as may be construed to establish or maintain any particular denomination of Christians). That was his out from being bound by English Common Law had he really wanted an out, because making it a crime to denounce one religion (in this case Christianity) while not declaring it a crime against any and all religions did in fact establish Christianity, perhaps not any particular denomination, but rather Christianity as a whole, in an official and legal sense. His decision in Ruggles could accurately be said to violate the New York State Constitution.

  13. Ruggles' lawyer probably did not try to argue that blasphemy if part of the common Law adopted from English common law should be excluded because it tended to establish a denomination of Christians for several reasons. 1) Reverence of English common law - American lawyers depended heavily on the training they received in the Blackstone tradition. 2) The act of blasphemy did not attack a particular denomination of Christianity, and therefore, a law punishing blasphemy could be found not to establish a Christian sect.

  14. Kent decided that the defendant's actions violated common law and cited English cases. And Kent found that the offense of blasphemy existed independently of England's establishment of the Anglican church; (an important point that he had to declare, although since English Common Law developed under and within the framework of union of civil/religious it is hard to imagine that his opinion is correct) therefore, the offense works in America which did not have an established church.

  15. Rationale: promotes virtuousness, decency and good order and protected the acknowledged religion of the community. (notice avoidance of the word "state" or "country")

  16. Kent found that only Christianity could be "reviled", and that other religions were not protected by the blasphemy statute. He was favoring Christianity over all other religions by allowing that the blasphemy only protected Christianity

  17. Ohio had a similar state constitutional guarantee of religious liberty, (the Ohio Constitution of that period of time was very similar to that of New York) and its high court decided that
    Christianity is a part of the common law of England, but, under the provisions of our constitution, neither Christianity nor any other system of religion is a part of the law of this state. (Bloom v Cornelius; December Term, 1853; Ohio Supreme Court)
    This also tends to show that there were other motives at stake when Kent wrote his opinion, especially in light of the fact that there appeared to be a recognizable Jewish community in New York.

  18. People v. Ruggles did not cause prosecutors to seek out and prosecute blasphemers. But as evidenced in the 1821 constitutional convention, Kent's views were not accepted without controversy. Erastus Root moved for an amendment to eliminate the law created by the Ruggles case. AND KENT VOTED FOR IT! The amendment allowed that "It shall not be declared or adjudged that any particular religion to be the law of the land." Hence, if religion could not be declared a part of the common law, then blasphemy would cease to be a punishable offense.

  19. Then twelve days later, Ambrose Spencer (the chief justice) moved to have Root's clause deleted, backed by RUFUS KING (one of the framers of the U.S. Constitution). Kent offered that his opinion did not declare Christianity to be the legal religion of the state. While on the surface this may have been true, in fact, it was the only religion that triggered the offense of blasphemy. Kent then changed his vote - and put in with Rufus King and Spencer and killed Root's amendment.

  20. The case continued to cause controversy, but few convictions for blasphemy.