The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Vidal v Girard's Executors

Vidal v Girard's Executors, 2 How. 127 (1844)-U.S. Supreme Court-is cited 5 times in The Myth of Separation(Will Probate)

Commentary, legal analysis and writing by Lee Edwards, Esq.

Major claims by Barton in his publications:

From the back cover of The Myth of Separation:

In 1844 in Philadelphia, a school took an unprecedented position: it would teach its students morality, but not Christianity. The Court ruled it could not do so--the Bible and Christianity must be included: "Why may not the Bible, and especially the New Testament ... be read and taught as a divine revelation in the [schools]--its general precepts expounded. . . and its glorious principles of morality inculcated? Where can the purest principles of morality be learned so clearly or so perfectly as from the New Testament?" Vidal v. Girard' s Executors, 1844

From The Myth of Separation, page 61-63, Barton writes:

This was the third case cited in Holy Trinity. This case involved the probate of the will of Stephen Girard, a native of France. He arrived in America before the Declaration of Independence was written and settled in the city of Philadelphia, where he lived until his death in 1831. He bequeathed his entire estate and personal property, valued at over $7 million, to the city of Philadelphia. The provisions of his will required the city to construct both an orphanage and a college according to his specific stipulations.

Girard's heirs (the plaintiffs) filed suit claiming that a trust could be given only to an individual, not to a city. The suit centered on who would take possession of the estate: the city or the plaintiffs. While the case was eventually decided in favor of Philadelphia, an ancillary issue was raised during the trial that is of interest to this study (it was this issue which received the Court's attention in the Holy Trinity case). Girard had stipulated:

I enjoin and require that no ecclesiastic, missionary, or minister of any sect whatsoever, shall ever hold or exercise any station or duty whatever in the said college; nor shall any such person ever be admitted for any purpose, or as a visitor, within the premises.... My desire is, that all the instructors and teachers in the college shall take pains to instill into the minds of the scholars the purest principles of morality.

Such a requirement was unprecedented in America. The lawyers for the plaintiffs complained:

The plan of education proposed is anti-christian, and therefore repugnant to the law.

The city's attorneys agreed, but said that the plaintiffs should not have sued on the issue of the trust; instead, they should have:

Joined with us in asking the state to cut off the obnoxious clause [prohibiting teaching religion].

The city's attorneys further pointed out:

The purest principles of morality are to be taught. Where are they found? Whoever searches for them must go to the source from which a Christian man derives his faith--the Bible. ...There is an obligation to teach what the Bible alone can teach, viz. a pure system of morality.

The plaintiffs attorneys offered the final argument:

Both in the Old and New Testaments [religious instruction's] importance is recognized. In the Old it is said, "Thou shalt diligently teach them to thy children, " and in the New, "Suffer little children to come unto me and forbid them not... . No fault can be found with Girard for wishing a marble college to bear his name for ever, but it is not valuable unless it has a fragrance of Christianity about it.

The unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court was delivered by Justice Joseph Story--appointed to the Court by President James Madison, the "Chief Architect of the Constitution," (a sufficient endorsement of Story's understanding of the Constitution both in its technical aspects and in its intent):

Christianity ... is not to be maliciously and openly reviled and blasphemed against, to the annoyance of believers or the injury of the public. . . . It is unnecessary for us, however, to consider the establishment of a school or college, for the propagation of . . . Deism, or any other form of infidelity. Such a case is not to be presumed to exist in a Christian country.

The Court continued, pointing out that the will, by prohibiting clergy, had not prohibited Christian instruction, and was therefore still acceptable under the Constitution:

Why may not laymen instruct in the general principles of Christianity as well as ecclesiastics.... And we cannot overlook the blessings, which such [lay]men by their conduct, as well as their instructions, may, nay must impart to their youthful pupils. Why may not the Bible, and especially the New Testament, without note or comment, be read and taught as a divine revelation in the [school] --its general precepts expounded, its evidences explained and its glorious principles of morality inculcated? . . . Where can the purest principles of morality be learned so clearly or so perfectly as from the New Testament?

On this issue, all parties involved in the case agreed! The plaintiffs lawyers said separating Christianity from education was "repugnant," the city's lawyers declared it "obnoxious," and the Court said it couldn't be done--moral principles must be taught from the Bible!

This was the third case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court which looked at Church and state. It did not involve the Federal Constitution or the Bill of Rights.


Commentary, legal analysis and writing by Lee Edwards, Esq.

Comments: Great site, guys. You are probably aware that a large number of misquotations, many of them admitted to by David Barton, have proliferated to many Christian Right websites.

You may be aware, for example, of the bogus quotation from the Supreme Court case Holy Trinity v. United States, or the infamous "holding" from footnote 11 of Torcaso v. Watkins. A number of the same websites are posting an out-of-context quotation from a very old and obscure case, Vidal v. Girard's Executor (1843). I wanted to alert you to this case since I have read it in its entirety.

The Vidal case was decided under Pennsylvania common law, not on constitutional grounds. Apparently, it was only in the U.S. Supreme Court because of diversity of citizenship (Vidal was French). Girard, apparently a Deist, was very wealthy and left a charitable trust for the education of orphans which provided that no cleric could ever proselytize on the property of the school and orphanage. Vidal, et al, were Girard's next of kin and they sought to have the trust declared void on the ground that it was anti-Christian. It would seem that their motive was greed, not piety.

The Christian Right sites strongly imply that the "religious" side won the Vidal case. Not so, Vidal lost. The trust was upheld.

I find it really amusing that the same folks who are always attacking Everson v. Board of Ed. or Ewing Township, a case which the religious side won, extol the virtues of Vidal v. Girard's Executor, a case which the "religious" side lost.