on his part that he was committing a crime-did not excuse him; but the law
inexorably in such case implies the criminal intent.'
Upon this charge and refusal to charge the question is raised, whether religious
belief can be accepted as a justification of an overt act made criminal by the law
of the land. The inquiry is not as to the power of Congress to prescribe criminal
laws for the Territories, but as to the guilt of one who knowingly violates a law
which has been properly enacted, if he entertains a religious belief that the law
Congress cannot pass a law for the government of the Territories which shall
prohibit the free exercise of religion. The first amendment to the Constitution
expressly forbids such legislation. Religious freedom is guaranteed everywhere
throughout the United States, so far as congressional interference is concerned.
The question to be determined is, whether the law now under consideration
comes within this prohibition.
The word 'religion' is not defined in the Constitution. We must go elsewhere,
therefore, to ascertain its meaning, and nowhere more appropriately, we think,
than to the history of the times in the midst of which the provision was adopted.
The precise point of the inquiry is, what is the religious freedom which has been
Before the adoption of the Constitution, attempts were made in some of the
colonies and States to legislate not only in respect to the establishment of
religion, but in respect to its doctrines and precepts as well. The people were
taxed, against their will, for the support of religion, and sometimes for the
support of particular sects to whose tenets they could not and did not subscribe.
Punishments were prescribed for a failure to attend upon public worship, and
sometimes for entertaining heretical opinions. The controversy upon this
general subject was animated in many of the States, but seemed at last to
culminate in Virginia. In 1784, the House of Delegates of that State having
under consideration 'a bill establishing provision for teachers of the Christian
religion,' postponed it until the next session, and directed that the bill should
be published and distributed, and that the people be requested 'to signify their
opinion respecting the adoption of such a bill at the next session of assembly.'
This brought out a determined opposition. Amongst others, Mr. Madison
prepared a 'Memorial and Remonstrance,' which was widely circulated and
signed, and in which he demonstrated 'that religion, or the duty we owe the
Creator,' was not within the cognizance of civil government. At the next session
the proposed bill was not only defeated, but another, 'for establishing religious
freedom,' drafted by Mr. Jefferson, was passed. In the preamble of this act
religious freedom is defined; and after a recital 'that to suffer the civil
magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the
profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency, is a
dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty,' it is declared 'that
it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government for its officers to
interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good
order.' In these two sentences is found the true distinction between what
properly belongs to the church and what to the State.