The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Is the United States a Christian Nation?

Holy Trinity and the Christian Nation Dicta

David Barton (The Myth of Separation, pp. 47-51) and others of the Religious right claim that the Supreme Court determined that the United States was a Christian nation in the 1892 case, Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 226 (1892). Unfortunately, their thesis and the analysis of the case that accompanies it amounts to little more than a manipulation of the language of the opinion to distort the actual meaning of the case, its relevant facts and its stated rule of law.

Research and writing by Susan Batte


The facts of Holy Trinity concerned the application of an Act of Congress titled "An act to prohibit the importation and migration of foreigners and aliens under contract or agreement to perform labor in the United States, its Territories and the District of Columbia." Holy Trinity Church, a church located in the city of New York, contracted with a minister in England to perform services as rector and pastor at its church. At issue in the case was whether or not the church's action violated the Act which prohibited "any person, company, partnership, or corporation ... to assist or encourage the importation or migration of any alien ... under contract or agreement ... to perform labor or service of any kind in the United States."

The holding of Holy Trinity was based on an interpretation of the purpose of the Act. The Court concluded that the purpose of the Act was to prohibit the importation of foreign unskilled persons to perform manual labor and manual services. A christian minister, the Court reasoned, is a "toiler of the brain," not a manual laborer; Holy Trinity Church, therefore, was found not to have violated the Act when it secured a contract for the holy man's employment.

The rationale in Holy Trinity contains several different parts. First the court discusses how it came up with the idea that the purpose of the Act was to slow down or stop the importation of cheap, unskilled manual laborers which might compete with American unskilled laborers for jobs. The Court says the title of the Act implies its meaning, that only the importation of "laborers" will be restricted. The Court then turns to the legislative history, debates, and comments of the Congressmen involved in drafting the Act to conclude that the Act was designed to regulate the domestic unskilled, labor market.

Justice Brewer then writes in the opinion that "beyond all these matters no purpose of action against religion can be imputed to any legislation, state or national, because this is a religious people." Several pages later, after presenting a religious history of America, he follows up with the statement: "These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation." Barton splices together these two quotes and cites Holy Trinity as establishing America as a Christian Nation.

To understand whether this last part of the Court's rationale establishes anything at all, it is necessary to first understand that an opinion written by the Supreme Court contains several different parts. The holding of the case establishes the rule of law as decided on by the court and as it relates specifically to the facts of the case. The rationale of the case contains the different reasons why the Court decided a case the way that it did. Contained within these reasons can be comments by the Court which do not have any bearing on the specific rule of law and are not binding on future cases with similar facts. These non-essential comments are called dictum, and unlike the holding of the case, dictum carries no precedential value. The essential comments, or the holding, becomes precedent which can then be applied to subsequent cases with similar facts.

In the case of Holy Trinity the essential comments made by the Court concern the scope of an immigration law. The rule was that the Act did not prohibit foreign "toilers" of the brain from accepting employment in this country. The foreign-born professional worker, doctor, lawyer, businessman, or clergyman, would be able to use the rule in Holy Trinity and the rationale regarding the purpose of the Act to support his claim for employment in America. Consider the "absurd" result if a doctor from Russia at the turn of the century were to state that he could be hired by an American hospital because Holy Trinity stood for the proposition that "this is a Christian nation." It would not make sense for such a person to cite the dictum concerning America's religiosity as a reason for allowing him access to the American job market.

Whether or not America was a Christian Nation was not even at issue in Holy Trinity. The actual dispute or controversy the Court had to decide had nothing at all to do with religion. The parties in Holy Trinity did not question whether the Immigration Act's purpose was "for or against religion" generally or specifically. So when Brewer begins his religious history lesson with, "no purpose of action against religion can be imputed to any legislation, state or national, because this is a religious people," he refers to no particular statute, no particular actor. He has moved outside the actual facts of this case and the statute at issue to address the vague application of general principles to law in general. His statements, therefore, create no rule of law, and provide no useful precedent for future legal disputes. As any basic Legal Research textbook will confirm, the legal researcher will not find precedent in such language, but must look for "the [legal] rules stated by courts [which] are tied to specific fact situations" (The Fundamentals of Legal Research, 1994, Jacobstein et al, page 6).

Brewer's comments about religion are not tied to any of the facts as presented in Holy Trinity. The Holy Trinity Church did not allege in the facts of its case that the purpose of the Act was to discriminate against a particular religion nor that it was designed to prevent the members of their church from the free exercise of their religion. Since none of the facts suggested that the clergyman was being kept out of the country for the purpose of discriminating against religion or prohibiting religious exercise, the dictum by Brewer addresses no controversy and crafts no rule of law to be applied to other cases as precedent.

Holy Trinity's legacy includes a number of Supreme Court cases which cite the opinion as support for either statutory construction based on legislative intent or the use of immigration policy to exclude or include immigrants. Only on three occasions does the Holy Trinity christian nation dictum make an appearance in a Supreme Court case.

In the 1931 case of U.S. v. Macintosh, an ordained baptist minister was denied naturalization because he was unwilling to take an oath to bear arms in defense of the country unless he believed the war necessitating the defense to be morally justified. As in Holy Trinity, the legal rule established by this case had nothing to do with the christian nation quote. Instead, the applicant was denied citizenship based on a reading of the naturalization statute which required the oath.

However, in Macintosh dictum, Justice Sutherland writes, "We are a Christian people, according to one another the equal right of religious freedom, and acknowledging with reverence the duty of obedience to the will of God." Sutherland then states that as a nation we must assume that obedience to our laws is "not inconsistent with the will of God;" therefore, a foreign-born person refusing to follow the naturalization statute to the letter would be denied citizenship.

There are a couple interesting notes about Macintosh. First, in Holy Trinity, Brewer uses the phrase "we are a christian nation" to allow a foreign-born minister access to this country. In Macintosh, it is used to keep a foreign-born ordained minister out. Second, a different result would most likely have occurred had this case arisen after World War II when the court overturned the Macintosh line of cases (Girouard, 1946).

The other two cases which cite Holy Trinity's christian nation dictum are Marsh v. Chambers (1982), and Lynch v. Donnelly (1983). Brennan writes dissents in both cases and uses the Brewer verbiage to criticize the majority's use of history to support legislative prayer and a government sponsored crèche. In the crèche case, (Lynch), Brennan writes, "By insisting that such a distinctively sectarian message is merely an unobjectionable part of our 'religious heritage,' the Court takes a long step backwards to the days when Justice Brewer could arrogantly declare for the Court that 'this is a Christian nation.' Those days, I had thought, were forever put behind us ...."
 
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