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Article on Blasphemy Law in the USA


The idea of punishing someone for blasphemy who surprise  most Americans today. It runs counter to freedom of religion and freedom of expression, both guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which says


Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;


However  prosecutions for blasphemy are not unknown in American history.

When the 13 colonies were established as part of the British Empire they naturally inherited English Common Law under which Blasphemy was a crime. However under English Common Law Blasphemy only applied to the Christian Religion and therefore on the face of it should have automatically been in breach of the First Amendment once the colonies had become the United States. During the colonial period both the Virginia and Massachusetts Bay colonies passed laws providing the death penalty for blasphemy. But the few cases prosecuted rarely resulted in more than whipping or banishment. Even these cases had more to do with religious and political dissent than with blasphemy.

Probably the most noteworthy case during the colonial period occurred in 1643 at Plymouth then part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It involved Samuel Gorton, an eccentric "Professor of the Mysteries of Christ." When Gorton denounced "hireling ministers" as doing the work of the devil, he was accused of making blasphemous speeches. Banished, he ended up in Rhode Island where he wrote a long insulting letter to the governor of Massachusetts Bay, John Winthrop. Winthrop sent soldiers to arrest and bring Gorton to Boston where the colonial legislature tried and convicted him of "capital blasphemy." Sentenced to hard labor, he caused so much trouble for his jailers that the authorities again banished him from the colony.

The only individuals actually executed for blasphemy in the American colonies were four Quakers. The government of Massachusetts had banished them for attacking the Puritan church. When they violated their banishment and returned to the colony, they were all hanged in 1659-60. Following the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, the First Amendment and most state constitutions prohibited the establishment of an official religion. Nevertheless, states still occasionally prosecuted persons for blasphemy against Christianity. In a typical 19th-century blasphemy case, a man called Ruggles made highly insulting remarks about Jesus Christ and his mother, Mary. The state of New York tried and convicted Ruggles and sentenced him to jail for three months plus a $500 fine. Appealing his case, Ruggles attorney argued that his client could not be prosecuted for blasphemy since there was no state law against it. In 1811, New York's highest appeals court unanimously rejected Ruggles' arguments. The court said that New York did not need a blasphemy statute. ' words violated the common law inherited from England, which made blasphemy against Christianity the law of the land. Based on this interpretation of the law, the New York court stated that reviling Jesus was a crime since it "tends to corrupt the morals of the people, and to destroy good order." The court seemingly ignored that New York's state constitution prohibited the establishment of any government-sponsored religion. Nevertheless, most other states adopted this legal opinion. Although very few persons were prosecuted, blasphemy remained a crime in several states well into the 20th century.

The U.S. Supreme Court has never decided a blasphemy case, but in 1952 it ruled on a similar matter. In this case, the New York State Film Censorship Board banned the film The Miracle>, which told of a girl who believed she was the Virgin Mary about to give birth to Jesus. The state court ruled that the film was "sacrilegious" since it treated Christianity with "contempt, mockery, scorn, and ridicule." The Supreme Court, however, unanimously decided that sacrilege could not be used as a basis for film censorship. "It is not the business of government in our nation," wrote Justice Tom Clark, "to suppress real or imagined attacks upon particular religious doctrine." [Burstyn v. Wilson 342 U.S. 495 (1952)]


Gradually, state courts found blasphemy laws and prosecutions unconstitutional or unenforceable and no prosecutions for blasphemy have taken place in the United States since 1971.


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