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An excerpt from the Lincoln Telegraph stating: The Supreme Judicial Court have unanimously decided in the case of Abner Kneeland, found guilty of blasphemy, that the defendant has no right to appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Kneeland was directed to appear on Saturday for sentence, but at his request the sentence was postponed.
Screen capture of Lincoln telegraph (Bath, Me.), April 26, 1838. Library of Congress, Serial and Government Publications Division.

A History of Blasphemy Laws in the United States

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The following is a guest post by Ryan Gale, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. He is an undergraduate student studying philosophy and theology at The Catholic University of America.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government’s establishment of a religion and protects the freedoms of religion and speech. Blasphemy laws – laws restricting the act of insulting or showing contempt for religion, or lack of reverence for sacred things – are often seen today as a violation of the right to free speech and religion. However, for much of the nation’s history, this type of speech was “classed blasphemy with obscenity and libel, as speech unprotected by the First Amendment or its state counterparts.”

Laws banning blasphemy, specifically related to Christianity, were prevalent throughout the states around the time of America’s founding, even though most states had their own free speech and religious freedom protections in their state constitutions. For example, in the 1780s and 1790s, Massachusetts, New Hampshire (pp. 721-22), and New Jersey all passed blasphemy laws even though part 1, article II, part 1, article 5, and article 18 of their respective constitutions had religious freedom protections.

Image of the beginning text of a law banning blasphemy from chapter 8 of the 1782 “Acts and Resolves Passed by the General Court” with the heading “An Act Against Blasphemy.” It states: “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Court assembled, and by the Authority of the same, that if any Person shall willfully blaspheme the Holy Name of God, by denying, cursing, or contumeliously reproaching God, his Creation, Government, or final Judging of the World, or by cursing, or reproaching . . .”
Screen capture of An Act Against Blasphemy passed in 1782 in Massachusetts. Courtesy of State Library of Massachusetts. http://hdl.handle.net/2452/103989

One of the first recorded instances of someone being convicted for blasphemy in the state of New York occurred in 1811. In People v. Ruggles, the New York Supreme Court upheld the conviction, saying that the crime of blasphemy is “independent of any religious establishment,” and that it affects “the essential interests of civil society.” In 1824, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court similarly upheld a conviction for blasphemy in Updegraph v. Commonwealth. That court also concluded that blasphemy laws seek “not to force conscience by punishment, but to preserve the peace of the country….” Two more similar cases came down in the 1830s, with State v. Chandler in 1837 and Commonwealth v. Kneeland in 1838. In these cases, the Delaware Supreme Court and the Massachusetts Supreme Court both upheld blasphemy convictions on the grounds that they were meant to preserve public peace rather than punish beliefs.

Following the Civil War, courts and legislatures continued to maintain similar views about blasphemy laws. For example, Maryland enacted a law in 1879 that punished blasphemy with up to a $100 fine and up to six months imprisonment. In the 1897 U.S. Supreme Court decision Robertson v. Baldwin, the Court mentioned in dicta that “the freedom of speech and of the press (art. 1) does not permit the publication of…blasphemous or indecent articles…” (p. 281) In 1921, Maine’s Supreme Court upheld a conviction against M.X. Mockus for committing blasphemy during his lectures in State v. Mockus. Even as recently as 1941, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an anti-blasphemy ordinance in Oney v. Oklahoma City.

A black and white photo of lecturer M.X. Mockus who was convicted of blasphemy in Watertown, Connecticut for denying the authenticity of several Bible stories in January 1917.
M.X. Mockus. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.23461

Things began to change, however, in the period following World War II. After New York attempted to ban the showing of Roberto Rossellini’s film The Miracoe for being sacrilegious, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson that the underlying law being relied upon to support the ban violated the First Amendment. This trend continued, such as when Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals struck down a blasphemy law in 1970 in State v. West. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down a law prohibiting companies from having blasphemous names in 2010 in Kalman v. Cortes. However, exceptions to this trend could be found in some court decisions. For example, in 1974, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld a blasphemy conviction and the accompanying $50 fine.

Although some courts have struck down blasphemy laws since World War II, several states still have them on the books today. Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and South Carolina all have statutes that make some reference to blasphemy.

For more information about blasphemy laws outside of the United States, see another one of our blog posts, “Where is Blasphemy Criminalized Around the World?”

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