Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States

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In Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457 (1892), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that a church did not violate federal law by contracting with a foreign laborer, a pastor from England. The church successfully argued that the law applied only to cheap unskilled foreign workers, not to ministers, pastors and other professional occupations.


This opinion, written by Justice David Brewer, is famous for its comments in support of religion. He held that:

"[N]o purpose of action against religion can be imputed to any legislation, state or national, because this is a religious people. This is historically true. From the discovery of this continent to the present hour, there is a single voice making this affirmation."

Justice Brewer then recounted the central role played by faith in the history of America:

  • the commission to Christopher Columbus ("Ferdinand and Isabella, by the grace of God, King and Queen of Castile ... it is hoped that by God's assistance some of the continents and islands in the ocean will be discovered ....")
  • the first colonial grant to Sir Walter Raleigh in 1584 (from "Elizabeth, by the grace of God, of England, Fraunce and Ireland, queen, defender of the faith" authorizing him to enact statutes for the government of the proposed colony provided that "they be not against the true Christian faith now professed in the Church of England")
  • the colonial charters to the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut ("Forasmuch as it hath pleased the Allmighty God by the wise disposition of his diuyne prudence so to Order and dispose of things that we the Inhabitants and Residents of Windsor, Hartford and Wethersfield are now cohabiting and dwelling in and vapor the River of Conectecotte and the Lands thereunto adioyneing; And well knowing where a people are gathered together the word of God requires that to maintain the peace and union of such a people there should be an orderly and decent Gouerment established according to God, to order and dispose of the affairs of the people at all seasons as occasion shall require; doe therefore associate and conioyne our soleus to be as one Publike State or Comonwelth; and doe, for our soleus and our Successors and such as shall be adjoined to vs at any time hereafter, enter into Combination and Confederation together, to maintain and pressure the liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess, as also the discipline of the Churches, which according to the truth of the said gospel is now practised amongst vs.")
  • the Declaration of Independence ("We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.")
  • the State Constitutions (Illinois, 1870: "We, the people of the State of Illinois, grateful to Almighty God for the civil, political and religious liberty which He hath so long permitted us to enjoy, and looking to Him for a blessing upon our endeavors to secure and transmit the same unimpaired to succeeding generations ....")
  • the familiar requirement that all officers shall take an oath ending in "so help me God."

Justice Brewer, writing for the Court, stated that:

"Even the Constitution of the United States, which is supposed to have little touch upon the private life of the individual, contains in the First Amendment a declaration common to the constitutions of all the States, as follows: 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' etc. And also provides in Article 1, section 7, (a provision common to many constitutions,) that the Executive shall have ten days (Sundays excepted) within which to determine whether he will approve or veto a bill.

The Court concluded:

"There is no dissonance in these declarations. There is a universal language pervading them all, having one meaning; they affirm and reaffirm that this is a religious nation. These are not individual sayings, declarations of private persons: they are organic utterances; they speak the voice of the entire people.
... 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."

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