Hobby Lobby – They Got It Right

David Barton – 08/02/2012

Hobby Lobby – They Got It RightRecently, an article appeared in Fredericksburg.com, complaining about a Fourth of July ad run by Hobby Lobby that included several quotes reflecting the religious heritage of America. (Several of Hobby Lobby’s different holiday message ads can be seen here). The Fredericksburg article claimed that three of the historical declarations made in the ad were inaccurate, but historical documentation demonstrates that it is the critics and not Hobby Lobby who were errant in their claims.

A. Complaint in Article:

As referenced in the ad, John Jay did write a letter in which he declared it “the duty, as well as the privilege and interest   of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their   rulers.” This reminds us that, along with their visionary striving for   human rights, many of the Founders were tainted with the prejudices of their   times. Fortunately, they got it right in Article VI of the Constitution:   “[N]o religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any   office or public trust under the United States.” Otherwise, presumably   with the blessing of Hobby Lobby’s owners, we’d have told Rep. Eric Cantor   and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, “Sorry, you need not apply.” 1  


Founding Father John Jay (author of the Federalist   Papers and the original Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court) did   indeed declare:

Providence has given to our people the choice of their   rulers, and it is the duty (as well as the privilege and interest) of our   Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers. 2  

The claim that choosing a leader on the basis of his   faith is a direct violation of Article VI in the Constitution is flat wrong.   The Founders made clear that the Article VI prohibition was an explicit   limitation only on the powers of the federal government, not on   those of citizens. As Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story affirmed: “it   [Article VI] was deemed advisable to exclude from the national government   all power to act upon the subject.” 3   The Founders believed that an investigation of the religious views of a   candidate was appropriate if undertaken by the voters, but not by the   federal government.

Justice Theophilus Parsons, a ratifier of the federal   Constitution, succinctly explained:

It has been objected that the Constitution provides no   religious test by oath and [that] we may have in power unprincipled men,   atheists, and pagans. No man can wish more ardently than I do that all our   public offices may be filled by men who fear God and hate wickedness [Exodus   18:21], but it must remain with the electors to give the government this   security. . . . [T]he only evidence we can have of the sincerity and   excellency of a man’s religion is a good life, and I trust that such evidence   will be required of every candidate by every elector. 4  

Signer of the Constitution Richard Dobbs Spaight   agreed:

I do not suppose an infidel or any such person will   ever be chosen to any office unless the people themselves be of the same   opinion. 5  

Therefore, while the federal government is explicitly   prohibited from investigating anyone’s religious views, it is completely   constitutional for voters to do so. As one court explained in 1837:

The distinction is a sound one between a religion   preferred by law, and a religion preferred by the people without the coercion   of law – between a legal establishment (which the present Constitution   expressly forbids) . . . and a religious creed freely chosen by the people   for themselves. 6  

Article VI limits only the power of the federal   government, not the power of the people.

[Personal note from David Barton: Perhaps a more   accurate modern translation for the intent of Jay’s statement would be that   it is the duty of Christians to select and prefer for office those who hold a   Biblical viewpoint. Quite frankly, many Jews, such as Rabbis Daniel Lapin and   Aryeh Spero, are much more Biblically aligned in their values and principles   than many so-called Christians; and I would personally work hard to elect   them to office over many professing Christians. In fact, one hundred percent   of the time I would vote for traditional-Biblical-value Jew   Eric Cantor over anti-traditional-Biblical-value Christian   Barack Obama, and I think John Jay would have done the same. But that being   said, the choice is still every individual’s to make; the people have the   constitutional right, unaffected by Article VI, to use whatever test they   wish in the selection of their leaders, including a personal religious test –   as many Muslims, Jews, and atheists also do every time they vote.]

B. Complaint in Article:

The Hobby Lobby ad grossly distorts the sense of the   court’s ruling in Vidal v. Girard’s Executors (1844) by strategically   altering a key word. Here’s how the ad quotes the decision: “Why may not   the Bible, and especially the New Testament, be read and taught as a divine   revelation in [schools]?” This, the ad explains, was from a “Unanimous   Decision Commending and Encouraging the Use of the Bible in Government-Run   Schools.” Far from it. The ad misquotes, substituting   “schools” for the true wording in the decision, which was “the   college”–specifically, Girard College. The real story: Multimillionaire   Stephen Girard bequeathed property to the city of Philadelphia, intending to   set up a school for poor orphans. His will 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. [M]y   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, so that, on their entrance into active life, they may, from   inclination and habit, evince benevolence towards their fellow creatures and   a love of truth, sobriety, and industry, adopting at the same time such   religious tenets as their matured reason may enable them to prefer.”

Clearly, Girard opposed using his charitable school   to promote any specific religious faith. Girard’s heirs contested the will on   grounds that Philadelphia couldn’t legally take this property in trust.   That’s the issue the court was deciding, and it ruled for Girard and his   will. The opinion discusses religious training not in order to rule in its   favor in “schools” but to show that Girard’s will couldn’t be shown   to have “impugned or repudiated” Christianity in endowing his   “college.” Supreme Court decisions are full of such explanatory   comments. The ones cited in the Hobby Lobby ad aren’t “Declaring America   a Christian Nation” any more than Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. made   Nazi-style eugenics into official public policy with his infamous conclusion   “Three generations of imbeciles are enough” in Buck v. Bell (1927).   7  


First, the word “college” is indeed used in the   original Court ruling; and Girard “college” still exists today, training   children from grades one through twelve. So Girard “college” is actually not   a “college” in the modern sense that the word is used today, but by today’s   standards it is rather a pre-secondary “school” – an elementary, junior high,   and high school, but it is not a college as understood today. Therefore, the   use of the word “[school]” in place of the word “college” accurately reflects   the object of the Court’s declaration and correctly portrays its intent.

Secondly, the Court did rule – definitively and   unanimously so – in favor of religious instruction in this   government-administered school run by the City of Philadelphia. As the Court   announced:

It is unnecessary for us, however, to consider what   would be the legal effect of a devise in Pennsylvania for the establishment   of a school or college for the propagation of Judaism, or Deism, or any other   form of infidelity. Such a case is not to be presumed to exist in a Christian   country. 8  

This is a forthright declaration by the Court strongly   endorsing that some form of religious education (i.e., what the Court described   as “Divine revelation”) must indeed be taught at the school, and that some   “form of infidelity” (i.e., lack of religious instruction) was not to   be part of this government-administered education.

C. Complaint in Article

In Church of the Holy Trinity v. U.S. (1892), the   issue to be decided wasn’t the religious affiliation of the U.S.; it was   whether a U.S. church had the right to hire a pastor from outside the   country, in spite of a federal law barring any employer from recruiting   foreign workers. Its remarks about the prevalence of Christianity were to   show that Congress did not intend that its labor law be used to prevent a   congregation from choosing its own pastor. 9  


In the 1892 U. S. Supreme Court decision Church of   the Holy Trinity v. United States is found this succinct statement:

[N]o purpose of action against religion can be imputed   to any legislation, state or national because this is a religious people. . .   . [T]his is a Christian nation.” 10  

Critics assert that this forthright declaration is   historically irrelevant because it is not part of the Court’s actual ruling   on the employment issue. However, a quick review of the short sixteen-page   ruling in this case unequivocally refutes this assertion.

At issue in the case was an 1885 federal immigration   law declaring:

[I]t shall be unlawful for any person, company,   partnership, or corporation, in any manner whatsoever to . . . in any way   assist or encourage the importation . . . of any alien or . . . foreigners   into the United States . . . under contract or agreement . . . to perform   labor or service of any kind. 11  

This law appeared to be a straightforward ban on hiring   foreign labor. So when the Church of the Holy Trinity in New York employed a   clergyman from England as its pastor, the U. S. Attorney’s office brought   suit against the church. The Supreme Court examined the issue and then   rendered a unanimous ruling.

In the first eight pages of the ruling, the Court   established that the law’s sole purpose had been to halt the influx of almost   slave-like Chinese foreign labor being exploited to construct the western   railroads, not limit the hiring of foreigners in general. Therefore, while   the church’s hiring of the minister had violated the literal wording of the   law, the law clearly had not been designed to affect the hiring of a pastor.   The Court therefore held that it would be an absurd application of the law to   prosecute the church for hiring a minister of its choice, and then explained   that if the intent of the law had been to prevent the church from hiring a   minister, then the law would have been unconstitutional.

To show why any law restricting the church would have   been unconstitutional, in the final eight pages of its ruling the Court   systematically reviewed scores of historical precedents to show that America   was indeed a Christian nation; and since it was a Christian nation, then any   law that would hinder the spread or propagation of Christianity would be   unconstitutional. 12   After citing those precedents, including several previous judicial holdings   declaring America to be a Christian nation, 13   the Court then concluded:

There is no dissonance in these declarations. There is   a universal language pervading them all, having one meaning; they affirm and   reaffirm that this is a religious nation. These are not individual sayings –   declarations of private persons: they are organic [legal, governmental]   utterances; they speak the voice of the entire people. . . . These, and many   other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations   to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation. 14  

According to the Court, the employment issue was closed   because America was a Christian nation, so the Christian nation declaration   was central to the Court’s ruling on the employment/hiring issue.



1. “July 4 ad exaggerated our Christian heritage: William W.   Ziegler’s op-ed column on Hobby Lobby and their Christian ad,” fredericksburg.com,   July 22, 2012. (Return)

2. William Jay, The Life of John Jay (New York: J.   & J. Harper, 1833), Vol. II, p. 376, to John Murray, Jr. on October 12,   1816. (Return)

3. Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the   United States (Boston: Hilliard, Gray, and Company, 1833), Vol. III, p.   731, §1873. (Return)

4. Theophilus Parsons, Memoir of Theophilus Parsons   (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1859), pp. 97-98. See also The Debates in the   Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution,   Jonathan Elliot, editor (Washington: Jonathan Elliot, 1836), Vol. II, pp.   107-108, Theophilus Parsons, Massachusetts, January 23, 1788. (Return)

5. The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the   Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Jonathan Elliot, editor   (Washington: Jonathan Elliot, 1836), Vol. IV, p. 208, Richard Dobbs Spaight,   North Carolina, July 30, 1788. (Return)

6. State v. Chandler, 2 Harr. 553, 2 Del. 553, 1837 WL   154 (Del.Gen.Sess. 1837). (Return)

7. “July 4 ad exaggerated our Christian heritage: William W.   Ziegler’s op-ed column on Hobby Lobby and their Christian ad,” fredericksburg.com,   July 22, 2012. (Return)

8. Vidal v. Girard’s Executors, 43 U. S. 127, 198   (1844). (Return)

9. “July 4 ad exaggerated our Christian heritage: William W.   Ziegler’s op-ed column on Hobby Lobby and their Christian ad,” fredericksburg.com,   July 22, 2012. (Return)

10. Church of the Holy Trinity v. U. S., 143 U. S.   457, 465, 470-471 (1892). (Return)

11. Church of the Holy Trinity v. U. S., 143 U. S.   457, 458 (1892). (Return)

12. Church of the Holy Trinity v. U. S., 143 U. S.   457, 465-470 (1892). (Return)

13. Church of the Holy Trinity v. U. S., 143 U. S.   457, 470-471 (1982). (Return)

14. Church of the Holy Trinity v. U. S., 143 U. S.   457, 470-471 (1892). (Return)

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