“The District of Columbia Has a Sunday-law” The American Sentinel 5, 7, pp. 49, 50.

February 13, 1890

TO justify their effort to secure the enactment of a Sunday law for the District of Columbia, the plea is made that the District has no Sunday law; and that to rescue this part of the United States from heathenism there must be enacted a civil Sunday law compelling people to act as though. they were religious, and prohibiting everybody from doing any work on Sunday in order to prevent people from being forced to labor on that day. But this is all a hoax, the District of Columbia has a Sunday law; but for obvious reasons they dare not try to enforce it as it is.

The way it all comes about is this: The colony of Maryland had a Sunday law, enacted in 1723. When the colony became the State of Maryland the same laws continued. Then when that portion of Maryland was set off which became the property of the United States under the title of the District of Columbia, and subject to the jurisdiction of Congress, the following statute was enacted by Congress:—

SEC. 92. The laws of the State of Maryland not inconsistent with this title, as the same existed on the twenty-seventh day of February, eighteen hundred and one, except as since modified or repealed by Congress or by authority thereof, or until so modified or repealed, continue in force within the District.—Revised Statutes District of Columbia, p. 9.

The law of Maryland (October, 1723), relative to Sunday was then as follows:—



Be it enacted by the right honorable the lord proprietor, by and with the advice and consent of his lordship’s governor, and the upper and lower houses of assembly, and the authority of the same, That if any persons shall hereafter, within this province, wittingly, maliciously, and advisedly, by writing or speaking, blaspheme or curse God, or deny our Saviour Jesus Christ to be the Son of God, or shall deny the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, or the Godhead of any of the three persons, or the unity of the Godhead, or shall utter any profane words concerning the Holy Trinity, or any of the persons thereof, and shall be thereof convict by verdict, or confession, shall, for the first offence, be bored through the tongue and fined twenty pounds sterling to the lord proprietor to be applied to the use of the county where the offence shall be committed, to be levied on the offender’s body, goods and chattels, lands or tenements, and in case the said fine cannot be levied, the offender to suffer six months’ imprisonment without bail or mainprise; and that for the second offence, the offender being thereof convict as aforesaid, shall be stigmatized by burning in the forehead with the letter B and fined forty pounds sterling to the lord proprietor, to be applied and levied as aforesaid, and in case the same cannot be levied, the offender shall suffer twelve months’ imprisonment without bail or mainprise; and that for the third offence, the offender being convict as aforesaid, shall suffer death without the benefit of the clergy.

SEC. 2. And be it enacted, that every person that shall hereafter profanely swear or curse in the presence and hearing of any magistrate, minister, the commissary-general, secretary, sheriff, coroner, provincial or county clerk, vestryman, church-warden, or constable, or be convicted thereof before any magistrate, by the oath of one lawful witness, or confession of the party, shall, for the first oath or curse, be fined two shilling and six-pense current money, and for every oath or curse after the first, five shillings like money, to be applied to the use aforesaid,

Sections 3 to 9 relate to drunkards and the enforcement of the law.

SEC. 10. And be it enacted, That no person whatsoever shall work or do any bodily labor on the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday, and that no person having children, servants or slaves, shall command, or wittingly, or willingly suffer any of them to do any manner of work or labor on the [50] Lord’s day (works of necessity and charity always excepted), nor shall suffer or permit any children, servants, or slaves, to profane the Lord’s day by gaming, fishing, fowling, hunting, or unlawful pastimes or recreations; and that every person transgressing this act, and being thereof convict by the oath of one sufficient witness, or confession of the party before a single magistrate, shall forfeit two hundred pounds of tobacco, to be levied and applied as aforesaid.

SEC. 11. And be it likewise enacted, That no housekeeper shall sell any strong liquor on Sunday (except in cases of absolute necessity), or suffer any drunkenness, gaming, or unlawful sports, or recreations, in his or her house, on pain of forfeiting two thousand pounds of tobacco to his lordship, one half to the use aforesaid, and the other half to him that will sue for the same, to be recovered by action of debt, bill, plaint, or information, wherein no essoin, protection or wager of law shall be allowed.

SEC. 12. And be it enacted, That every parish clerk within this province shall procure a copy of this act, which the county clerks are hereby required to suffer the parish clerks to take without fee or reward, for which he shall be allowed in the parish fifty. pounds of tobacco, and that the same shall be read four times in a year, viz., on some Sunday in March, in June, in September, and in December, by every minister within this province, in their respective parish churches, between divine service and sermon, on pain of forfeiting one thousand pounds of tobacco for every omission, one half to the lord proprietor, for the use aforesaid, and the other half to him that will sue for the same, to be recovered by action of debt, bill, plaint, or in-formation, wherein no essoin, protection, or wager of law shall be allowed.—Laws of the District of Columbia. pp. 136-138.

These statutes have never been either repealed or modified by any act of Congress. On the contrary, provision has been made for their strict enforcement. The Revised Statutes of the District of Columbia says:—

SEC. 335. It shall be the duty of the board of police at all times of the day or night within the boundaries of said police district.

* * * * * * * *

Ninth, To see that all laws relating to the observance of Sunday …. are promptly enforced; and

Tenth, To enforce and obey all laws and ordinances in force in the District, or any part thereof, which are properly applicable to police or health, and not inconsistent with the provisions of this chapter.—Revised Statutes District of Columbia p. 40.

It therefore stands conclusively proved that the District of Columbia has a full and sufficient Sunday law. But there is a serious difficulty about its enforcement. Although according to the act of Congress all these laws are of force, they cannot be enforced. The first one—the one relating to blaspheming is clearly and doubly unconstitutional, in that (1) in forbidding a denial of the Trinity it prohibits the free exercise of religion, and (2) it inflicts cruel and unusual punishments.

Then the Sunday statute being an inseparable part of the act, bears upon its very face the distinct religious features of all such legislation. The Sunday law advocates therefore have not the courage to undertake the enforcement of a Sunday law that stands so distinctly and inseparably connected with the barbarisms of a religious despotism. Consequently they hope to get the provisions of this Sunday section separated from its original and proper connection, by advocating the civil Sunday, and securing the passage by Congress of an act to prevent persons being forced to labor on Sunday.

By comparing the Blair and the Breckinridge Sunday bills with the foregoing Sunday section, it is easy to see the family likeness. The Blair bill, Section 5, reproduces that feature of the old law, Section 11, which proposes to hire people to sue the man who works on Sunday; with this difference, however, that whereas the old law gave half the fine imposed for Sunday work, the Blair bill gives all the earnings, of the man who receives pay for Sunday work. There is another point in this reproduction of the old law that is worthy of notice; if it is not an intentional reproduction, it is to say the least


Section 10, of the existing law imposes a fine of “two hundred pounds of tobacco,” and the Breckinridge bill imposes a fine of “one hundred dollars;” Section 11, of the existing law imposes a fine of “two thousand pounds of tobacco,” and Section 3, of the Blair bill allows a fine of “one thousand dollars.” Now we find by inquiry of large dealers in tobacco in this city, that the average retail price of average tobacco is fifty cents a pound. Thus the two hundred pounds of tobacco of Section 10, of the existing law, at fifty cents a pound make the one hundred dollars of the Breckinridge bill; and the two thousand pounds of tobacco of Section 11, of the existing law, at fifty cents a pound make the one thousand dollars of the Blair bill! We say again that if this point in the two Sunday bills, now before Congress, was not intentional, it is certainly a most remarkable coincidence; while the other points of resemblance between the old and the new bear strongly, almost irresistibly, to the conclusion that the old law was before the eyes and in the minds of those who originated the two Sunday bills that are now pending in Congress.

What is the use of the Sunday-law advocates any longer talking about “civil” Sunday laws? Sunday observance is religious and nothing else. It never was anything else and it never can be made anything else. Sunday laws are religious laws. They are laws enforcing the observance of a religious institution. They belong with an established religion. When, in the face of the evidence here presented, the advocates of Sunday laws, either State or national, make the plea that it is only civil Sunday laws that they want, the people will know just what to think of the plea. And, in view of the evidence here presented, when men advocate a Sunday law, either State or national, upon any plea whatever, the people may know just what estimate to put upon the plea, and also upon the men who make it.

A. T. J.

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