January 9, 1896
LAMST week we printed on our last page the text of the Sunday bill recently introduced into Congress by Representative Morse, of Massachusetts.
This bill is entitled, “A bill for the protection of the first day of the week, commonly called Sunday, as a day of rest and worship in the District of Columbia.”
Such being the title of the bill, it is clear that it is one which should meet with no favor form an American Congress, for it is opposed to the very fundamental principles of free government.
The Declaration of Independence is not law in the common acceptations of that term, but the principles enunciated in it, existing as they do in the very nature of things, are superior even to the Constitution, and by those principles that instrument must be interpreted.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” our forefathers declared, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…. that to secure these rights, governments are institute among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
That we have not read amiss or misinterpreted the Declaration of Independence when we say that it teaches that government exists for the protection of human rights, is evident from the following words by the author of that immortal instrument, written nearly forty years later, namely, June 7, 1815:
OUR legislators are not sufficiently apprised of the rightful limits of their power; that their true office is to declare and enforce only our natural rights and duties, and to take none of them from us. No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another; and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him; every man is under the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of the society; and this is all the laws should enforce on him. 466
This leaves no room to question Jefferson’s meaning. But with these words the language of the Declaration is plain: the American doctrine as enunciated by our forefathers is that just governments exist for the purpose of protecting men in the exercise of their rights; not “for the protection of the first day of the week,” or any other day of the week. But the title of this Sunday bill shows that it is designed, not to secure human rights, but to confer honor upon a day because of its religious character, something never contemplated by the founders of the Government as is witnessed not only by the Declaration of Independence, but by the First Amendment to the Constitution as well.
But it may be said that the words: “For the protection of the first day of the week,” etc., really mean for the protection of people in the use of the day for the purposes specified. Not so; for the language of the act itself forbids this interpretation. The words, “The first day of the week, known as the Lord’s day, set apart by general consent in accordance with divine appointment as a day of rest and worship,” stamp the proposed legislation as religious, and show the purpose of the act to be, not to secure human rights, but to honor as a divine institution the particular day in question.
That the purpose of the bill is, as we have stated, to honor Sunday and to secure its religious observance is further shown by the clause exempting from its provisions “those who religiously observe Saturday.” It is not enough that one simply rests on Saturday; he must “religiously observe” it, showing that the bill aims at religious observance on one day or the other.
Further, the bill assumes to settle a religious controversy by declaring that “the first day of the week, commonly known as the Lord’s day,” is “set apart” “in accordance with divine appointment.” The First Amendment to the Federal Constitution declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” What possible right then has the national legislature to decide that a given day is “set apart in accordance with divine appointment”? or to decree that it must be observed by refraining upon it from “any labor, except works of necessity and mercy”?
If Congress may, for the reason given, require Sunday observance, might it not also require anything else that it deems “in accordance with divine appointment”? If, as some assert, the First Amendment means no more than that Congress shall not establish any denomination as the State church, and that it shall not forbid the profession of any faith,—if the First Amendment means no more than this, we ask, might not Congress require any other religious observance as well as the observance of “the first day of the week, commonly known as the Lord’s day”? Might not the national legislature require, for instance, that all persons should profess some religion, leaving each one free to choose the particular church he would join? Or might not Congress require all within its jurisdiction to have their children christened, leaving them free to choose the particular church whose minister should administer the rite? Certainly.
But the First Amendment means more than that: it means as expressed May 26, 1797, by George Washington, the father of his country, that “the Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion;” 467 it means as Jefferson expressed it in 1808, that “the Government of the United States” is “interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises.” 468 It means, as Mr. Madison, the father of the Constitution, expressed it in 1823, “that religion is essentially distinct from civil government, and exempt from its cognizance.” 469 It means, as a committee of the United States Senate expressed in 1829, that “among all the religious persecutions with which almost every page of modern history is stained, no victim ever suffered but for the violation of what government denominated the law of God. To prevent a similar train of evils in this country, the Constitution has wisely withheld from our Government the power of defining the divine law. It is a right reserved to each citizen; and while he respects the rights of others, he cannot be held amenable to any human tribunal for his conclusions.” 470 
Such being the meaning of the First Amendment to the Constitution, will Congress reject this Sunday bill? Time alone can tell.