Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457 (1892)

Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States shocks supporters of a complete separation of church and state because of Justice David J. Brewer’s statement for a unanimous Supreme Court that the United States is a Christian nation. In support of this idea, Brewer even invoked the Establishment of Religion and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment that barred Congress from establishing a religion or interfering with the free exercise of religion. Holy Trinity reflects the widespread understanding of nineteenth- century Protestant jurists and lay people that the prohibition on an established church in no way undermined the religiosity of the nation itself.

The case began when the Collector of U.S. Customs at the port of New York levied a $1,000 fine against the Church of the Holy Trinity in New York for violating Alien Contract Labor Act of 1885 by hiring the Rev. E. Walpole Warren, an Englishman. The act’s broad language made it ‘‘unlawful for any person, company, partnership, or corporation . . . to prepay the transportation, or in any way assist or encourage the importation or migration of any alien . . . under contract . . . to perform labor or service of any kind in the United States . . . .’’ The action against Holy Trinity was taken at the behest John Stewart Kennedy, a wealthy Scottish immigrant, who reasoned that the courts would balk at enforcing the act against a clergyman. Kennedy wanted to bring the act into disrepute and paid the fine and the costs of defense.

Holy Trinity’s attorney, Seaman Miller, sought to recover the fine by filing a demurrer raising the question of whether the act applied to a clergyman. Stephen A. Walker, the U. S. District Attorney, did not think much of the drafting skills of the act’s writers, but he dutifully argued in 1888 that the law applied. The statute excepted only actors, artists, lecturers, singers, or personal servants. Miller responded that that Congress had targeted cheap, manual labor only. He also invoked briefly the First Amendment’s free exercise clause, but this argument was ignored by the circuit court judge. The decision in United States v. Rector, Etc., of the Church of the Holy Trinity in 1888 limited the question to whether Congress intended to prohibit the entry of an immigrant who came under contract with a religious society to perform the functions of a minister of the gospel. The judge held that the language of the statute clearly applied, although he believed that no legislative body in this country would have purposefully enacted a law framed so as to cover the case before him.

During Miller’s oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in January 1892, the justices’ questions made clear that they agreed that the only statutory exceptions were actors, lecturers, etc. The assistant attorney general became convinced that his oral argument was unnecessary to success, so merely submitted his brief. He learned the next month that he had lost the case. Justice Brewer insisted that the literal construction of a statute must not result in an absurdity. Congressional debate revealed that the act targeting the immigration of large numbers of laborers willing to work for low pay. Yet Brewer was not done. He then declared that a literal construction was also an absurdity because not legislature, state, or national would act against religion because of the religious character of the American people and their society. Brewer included a list of pronouncements drawn from political and legal documents— including the First Amendment clauses—to prove this. In addition, American laws, customs, and society demonstrated that this is a Christian nation.

Modern liberal church/state scholars have dismissed, too eagerly, the Christian nation statement as mere dictum unnecessary to the reasoning of the decision. In a dissent from Lynch v. Donnelly in 1984 where the Court approved of a nativity display on city property, Justice William J. Brennan denounced Brewer for his sectarian arrogance. Today, legal writers are more likely to examine Holy Trinity as part of the debate on the appropriateness of examining legislative history when interpreting statutes. Of course, some were appalled in 1892 by Brewer’s statement, but this reaction was not widespread as many Americans shared Brewer’s belief in the religious character of their country. In fact, Brewer had made a similar statement for a unanimous Kansas Supreme Court in Board of Commissioners of Wyndotte Co. v. The First Presbyterian Church of Wyandotte in 1883. Holy Trinity thus exemplifies an evangelical Protestant theory of church-state relations as opposed to a liberal theory.

LINDA PRZYBYSZEWSKI

References and Further Reading

  • Alien Contract Labor Act, Act of February 26, 1885, 23 Stat. 332.
  • Hylton, Joseph Gordon, David Josiah Brewer and the Christian Constitution, Marquette Law Review 91 (1998): 417–425.
  • Przybyszewski, Linda. ‘‘The Secularization of the Law and the Persistence of Religious Faith: The Case of Justice David J. Brewer.’’ Journal of American History 90 (2004).
  • Vermeule, Adrian, Legislative History and the Limits of Judicial Competence: the Untold Story of Holy Trinity Church, Stanford Law Review 50 (1998): 1833–1896.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Board of Commissioners of Wyndotte Co. v. The First Presbyterian Church of Wyandotte, 30. Kan, 620, 637 (1883)
  • Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984)
  • United States v. Rector, Etc., of the Church of the Holy Trinity, C.C. S.D. N.Y. 36 F. 303, 303 (1888)

See also Establishment of Religion and Free Exercise Clauses; Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984)

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