Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States
|Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States|
|Submitted January 7, 1892
Argued January 7, 1892
Decided February 29, 1892
|Full case name||Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States|
|Citations||143 U.S. 457 (more)
12 S. Ct. 511; 36 L. Ed. 226; 1892 U.S. LEXIS 2036
|Prior history||Error to the Circuit Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York|
|The circuit court did err when it held that the contract hiring an English rector was within the prohibition of the statute, which disallowed a "...person, company, partnership, or corporation, in any manner whatsoever to prepay the transportation, or in any way assist or encourage the importation or migration, of any alien or aliens, any foreigner or foreigners, into the United States ... under contract or agreement ... to perform labor or service of any kind in the United States...."|
|Majority||Brewer, joined by unanimous|
|U.S. chap. 164, 23 St. p. 332|
Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457 (1892), was a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States regarding an employment contract between The Church of the Holy Trinity, New York and an English (Anglican) priest.
Contracts to import labor were forbidden by Federal law, and specifically by the Alien Contract Labor Law, an Act of Congress passed in 1885 prohibiting "the importation and migration of foreigners and aliens under contract or agreement to perform labor or service of any kind in the United States, its territories, and the District of Columbia."
The court held that a minister was not a foreign laborer under the statute even though he was a foreigner.
“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. While because of a general recognition of this truth the question has seldom been presented to the courts, yet we find that in Updegraph v. Com., 11 Serg. & R. 394, 400, it was decided that, ‘Christianity, general Christianity, is, and always has been, a part of the common law of Pennsylvania.”
— Supreme Court Decision, 1892 Church of the Holy Trinity Decision v United States
The court used the soft plain meaning rule to interpret the statute in this case. Justice David Josiah Brewer made a principle of statutory construction that "It is a familiar rule, that a thing may be within the letter of the statute and yet not within the statute, because not within its spirit, nor within the intention of its makers." Its decision stated that "the circuit court did err when it held that the contract hiring an English rector was within the prohibition of the statute, which disallowed a "...person, company, partnership, or corporation, in any manner whatsoever to prepay the transportation, or in any way assist or encourage the importation or migration, of any alien or aliens, any foreigner or foreigners, into the United States ... under contract or agreement ... to perform labor or service of any kind in the United States..."
The case is famous for Justice Brewer's statements that America is a "Christian nation."
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. 143 U.S. 457 (1892)
While the case was not specifically about religion, Justice Brewer was concerned that the ruling could be misconstrued as defining the United States as having Christianity as the official religion.
But in what sense can it be called a Christian nation? Not in the sense that Christianity is the established religion or that people are in any matter compelled to support it. On the contrary, the Constitution specifically provides that 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.' Neither is it Christian in the sense that all of its citizens are either in fact or name Christian. On the contrary, all religions have free scope within our borders. Numbers of our people profess other religions, and many reject all. Nor is it Christian in the sense that a profession of Christianity is a condition of holding office or otherwise engaging in public service, or essential to recognition either politically or socially. In fact, the government as a legal organization is independent of all religions.
This case is cited most often in legal cases for its holding on how legislative intent can be determined. For example, in the case of United Steelworkers of America v. Weber, 443 U.S. 193 (1979), in which the Supreme Court held that the prohibitions against racial discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not bar all affirmative action programs by private employers which favored racial minorities, the Supreme Court quoted, as part of its analysis, Holy Trinity's principle of statutory interpretation that "[i]t is a 'familiar rule, that a thing may be within the letter of the statute and yet not within the statute, because not within its spirit, nor within the intention of its makers.'" Weber, 443 U.S. at 201, quoting Holy Trinity, 143 U.S. at 459. The Weber Court said that the language of Title VII "must therefore be read against the background of the legislative history of Title VII and the historical context from which the Act arose." Id.
Justice Antonin Scalia, referring to the holding in the Holy Trinity decision as the "prototypical case" in which a judge follows the intent of the legislature rather than the text of the statute, wrote that this was in opposition to his judicial philosophy of textualism. The textualist position holds that courts should follow the text of a law rather than attempt to read exceptions into the law in accordance with the legislative intent. Scalia has thus criticized the principle of the Holy Trinity case as "nothing but an invitation to judicial lawmaking."
In Public Citizen v. Department of Justice, 491 U.S. 440 (1989), Justice Kennedy, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice O'Connor, rejected this approach to determining Congressional intent. Kennedy wrote:
"The central support for the Court's ultimate conclusion that Congress did not intend the law to cover Christian ministers is its lengthy review of the 'unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation,' and which were taken to prove that it could not 'be believed that a Congress of the United States intended to make it a misdemeanor for a church of this country to contract for the services of a Christian minister residing in another nation.' I should think the potential of this doctrine to allow judges to substitute their personal predilections for the will of the Congress is so self-evident from the case which spawned it as to require no further discussion of its susceptibility to abuse."' 
- Full text of Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, Justia.com]
- The Foreign Contract Labor Bill Passed. The Senate Makes Several Amendments To The House Bill--Only Nine Votes Against It, New York Times, February 19, 1885
- Eidsmoe, John (1995). Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers. Baker Academic. ISBN 0-8010-5231-9
- Demar, Gary (1905). The United States A Christian Nation. American Vision Pr. p. 11-13. ISBN 0915815206
- Antonin Scalia, A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law 21 (1998)
- Full text of Public Citizen v. Department of Justice, Justia.com
- 491 U.S. 471 (1989)
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