Although the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited Congress from passing laws “respecting the establishment of religion,” Massachusetts did not disestablish its state church until 1833, and states continued some preferentialism for Christianity in general, and Protestantism in particular, well through the end of the nineteenth century.

Although Thomas Jefferson disagreed, Justice Joseph Story was among Supreme Court Justices who asserted that American common law embodied elements of Christianity. A number of modern proponents of governmental accommodation of religion have combed through early court decisions to support their views.

One frequently cited case is that of Runkel vs. Winemiller, 4 H. & McH. 429 (1799), which originated in Maryland.

The case centered on a request for a writ of mandamus by the Reverend William Runkel to regain his position as minister of the German or High Dutch Reformed Christian Church in Frederick, Maryland after the congregation had sought to replace him with another pastor, in a manner that he argued had denied him due process.

Maryland Court in 1799 case supports accommodating Christianity

Samuel Chase, who, at the time the case came to court was heading the Maryland Court of Appeals and would soon be appointed by President George Washington to the U.S. Supreme Court, authored the decision for a unanimous court granting this mandamus, after indicating that he had first unsuccessfully sought to get the parties to resolve the issue among themselves.

Chase’s statements indicate the manner in which civil authorities might justify intervention into such ecclesiastical disputes. Although his words suggest that he likely believed that the common law supported Christianity in general, his ruling applied specifically within Maryland, where Article XXXIII of the state continued to permit the collection of a general assessment for clergymen (which tax, however, seems to have been blocked in the legislature) through 1810 (Breidenbach 2019, p. 320).

Chase thus observed that:

Religion is of general and public concern, and on its support depend, in great measure, the peace and good order of government, the safety and happiness of the people. By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion; and all sects and denominations of Christians are placed upon the same equal footing, and are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty. The principles of the Christian religion cannot be diffused, and its doctrines generally propagated, without places of public worship, and teachers and ministers to explain the scriptures to the people, and to enforce an observance of the precepts of religion by their preaching and living. And the pastors, teachers and ministers, of every denomination of Christians, are equally entitled to the protection of the law, and to the employment of their religious and temporal rights. And the court are of opinion, that every endowed minister, of any sect or denomination of Christians, who has been wrongfully dispossessed of his pulpit, is entitled to the writ of mandamus to be restored to his function, and the temporal rights with which it is endowed (p. 450).

This is a classic view of what might be called Christian non-preferentialism, in which a state could aid religion (understood to be Christianity) in general as long as it did not prefer one religious denomination over another. In actual practice, if judicial intervention were required to resolve a dispute, it might not significantly differ from the provision of other governmental and social services (like police and fire protection) to which the U.S. Supreme Court referred in Everson v. Board of Education (1947) — approving bus transportation for parochial school students — that governments regularly provide to all organizations, secular or sacred.

John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was published on Dec. 4, 2019.

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