Videl v. Girard: US Supreme Court Rules that American Schools are to Teach Morals and Christianity Using the Bible in Schools

In 1844 in Philadelphia, a school took an unprecedented position: it would teach its students morality, but not Christianity. The Court ruled it could not do so–the Bible and Christianity must be included:

“Why may not the Bible, and especially the New Testament … be read and taught as a divine revelation in the [schools]–its general precepts expounded. . . and its glorious principles of morality inculcated? Where can the purest principles of morality be learned so clearly or so perfectly as from the New Testament?”

Vidal v. Girard’ s Executors, 1844

This was the third case cited in Holy Trinity. This case involved the probate of the will of Stephen Girard, a native of France. He arrived in America before the Declaration of Independence was written and settled in the city of Philadelphia, where he lived until his death in 1831. He bequeathed his entire estate and personal property, valued at over $7 million, to the city of Philadelphia. The provisions of his will required the city to construct both an orphanage and a college according to his specific stipulations.

Girard’s heirs (the plaintiffs) filed suit claiming that a trust could be given only to an individual, not to a city. The suit centered on who would take possession of the estate: the city or the plaintiffs. While the case was eventually decided in favor of Philadelphia, an ancillary issue was raised during the trial that is of interest to this study (it was this issue which received the Court’s attention in the Holy Trinity case). Girard had stipulated:

I enjoin and require that no ecclesiastic, missionary, or minister of any sect whatsoever, shall ever hold or exercise any station or duty whatever in the said college; nor shall any such person ever be admitted for any purpose, or as a visitor, within the premises…. My desire is, that all the instructors and teachers in the college shall take pains to instill into the minds of the scholars the purest principles of morality.

Such a requirement was unprecedented in America. The lawyers for the plaintiffs complained:

The plan of education proposed is anti-christian, and therefore repugnant to the law.

The city’s attorneys agreed, but said that the plaintiffs should not have sued on the issue of the trust; instead, they should have:

Joined with us in asking the state to cut off the obnoxious clause [prohibiting teaching religion].

The city’s attorneys further pointed out:

The purest principles of morality are to be taught. Where are they found? Whoever searches for them must go to the source from which a Christian man derives his faith–the Bible. …There is an obligation to teach what the Bible alone can teach, viz. a pure system of morality.

The plaintiffs attorneys offered the final argument:

Both in the Old and New Testaments [religious instruction’s] importance is recognized. In the Old it is said, “Thou shalt diligently teach them to thy children, ” and in the New, “Suffer little children to come unto me and forbid them not… . No fault can be found with Girard for wishing a marble college to bear his name for ever, but it is not valuable unless it has a fragrance of Christianity about it.

The unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court was delivered by Justice Joseph Story–appointed to the Court by President James Madison, the “Chief Architect of the Constitution,” (a sufficient endorsement of Story’s understanding of the Constitution both in its technical aspects and in its intent):

Christianity … is not to be maliciously and openly reviled and blasphemed against, to the annoyance of believers or the injury of the public. . . . It is unnecessary for us, however, to consider the establishment of a school or college, for the propagation of . . . Deism, or any other form of infidelity. Such a case is not to be presumed to exist in a Christian country.

The Court continued, pointing out that the will, by prohibiting clergy, had not prohibited Christian instruction, and was therefore still acceptable under the Constitution:

Why may not laymen instruct in the general principles of Christianity as well as ecclesiastics…. And we cannot overlook the blessings, which such [lay]men by their conduct, as well as their instructions, may, nay must impart to their youthful pupils. Why may not the Bible, and especially the New Testament, without note or comment, be read and taught as a divine revelation in the [school] –its general precepts expounded, its evidences explained and its glorious principles of morality inculcated? . . . Where can the purest principles of morality be learned so clearly or so perfectly as from the New Testament?

On this issue, all parties involved in the case agreed! The plaintiffs lawyers said separating Christianity from education was “repugnant,” the city’s lawyers declared it “obnoxious,” and the Court said it couldn’t be done–moral principles must be taught from the Bible!

JOSEPH STORY

In all of Supreme Court history, no Justice has written as prolifically on matters of religion, specifically Christianity’s impact “upon public and political law,”, as Joseph Story. Not only did Story write the opinion in Vidal v. Girard, he also wrote extensively off the Court regarding the religion clauses. Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States references both religion clauses and serves as a foundational work for constitutional jurisprudence. Concerning the role of Christianity in constitutional analysis, Story wrote:

Probably at the time of the adoption of the constitution, and of the amendment to it… the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state, so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience, and the freedom of religious worship.

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