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Sunday Legislation


Our readers will recollect that in our November Number of last year, we announced in our News Items, the passage of an ordinance by the Common Hall of Richmond, Virginia, imposing a heavy fine for infraction of the sanctity of Sunday, over and above the penalty enacted by the state laws. In our February Number we communicated a petition, which was handed in to the Town Council by many Israelites, respectfully asking the repeal of this obnoxious law, which is evidently intended to operate in favour of those who regard the first day of the week as one of religious repose, and must, in consequence, be looked upon as an especial enactment, though against the spirit of the constitution, giving one class of the inhabitants, and the doctrines professed by the same, a predominance not rightfully belonging to them. It is easily discoverable that no one would enforce the keeping of the first day of the week, unless he thought it possessed of religious sanctity, or else legislation might as well be exerted in favour of the fourth or any other day. But supposing that one would rise in the halls of a state legislature, and gravely propose a bill compelling factory labour, for instance, to cease on each Wednesday, under a penalty of a fine of ten shillings, or any other sum; would not an outcry be raised at once that this would amount to an unwarranted interference in the rights of each man who ought not to be restrained from labouring when he pleases? And still we are gravely told that the compulsory keeping of Sunday is a police law, which the state or city corporation has a constitutional right to direct and to exact it by fine and imprisonment! Is it not in effect, whatever may be alleged under the last mentioned flimsy pretext, an unwarranted enactment, giving legislative sanction to a religious observance, nit acquiesced in from feeling or conviction by the whole people,—but merely adopted, doubtlessly without much reason or knowing why on the part of a majority merely, though we will confess that this be an overwhelming one?

No one can therefore expect that persons who conscientiously think the Seventh day to be the true Sabbath, will or ought to acquiesce in the arrangement casting aside their right by making special laws for the Sunday; and that, as such laws do exist in most states of the Union, they should seek by all lawful means to expunge all such partial legislation from the statute books. Hence the Seventh-day Baptists handed in petitions to the legislatures of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania during the last winter, to put them, in the first state, upon a level as regards exemption from arrest, &c., on their Sabbath, which privilege is accorded to others on Sunday; and in the latter states, to do away with the odious feature of punishing for labour on the first day, as though it were an infringement of a law which has a right to exist in the civil code. Neither application has thus far been successful; we think, however, that the matter will be agitated till justice be done in the premises. Lately several Baptists have been informed against in this state for working on a Sunday; the fine of course was imposed by the magistrate who heard the case; but we also learn that the defendants mean or have already proceeded to take an appeal to the higher tribunals, to test the constitutionality of the oppressive act in question. As regards the petition which the Israelites of Richmond presented, it was left to lie on the table of the committee to which it was referred during the remainder of the existence of the last council; they did not probably wish to face the question. The new council, however, have taken the subject under consideration, and on the 13th of July last, the committee made at length the following report, which, as will be perceived, was laid on the table. We have not heard since what has been done with it; but we shall report whatever may reach us. We forbear any farther remarks at present, as our readers can judge for themselves of the cogency or otherwise of the report of the learned councellor, and we are truly rejoiced that the good cause of the fullest liberty of conscience has found so able an expounder, as the former District Attorney of the capital of Virginia, a state truly famous for its great and good men, who have done so much for the promotion of human freedom.

“Mr. Mayo presented the following report:

“The committee to whom was referred the subject of an ordinance for the more effectual suppression of Sabbath breaking, passed the 11th day of August, 1845, with leave to report by ordinance or otherwise, beg leave to report:

“That though the ordinance under consideration may be liable to the construction that some have placed on it, as applying to Sunday as a religious Sabbath, your committee believe that this is a misapprehension of the true meaning of the ordinance; for however unguarded the language used, your committee are of opinion that neither the Legislature nor City Council, have any power, or control, over that day as a Sabbath, more than any other day. The government, either state or city, is in no wise responsible for the religion of the community, except so far as they are bound to protect each and every member thereof, peaceably exercising his religious devotions, in such manner as to him shall seem fit, from being disturbed by others. As to what day one should observe as a religious Sabbath, or what he should do on that day, provided his conduct is peaceable, and neither obstructs others in their religious worship, nor disturbs the good order of society, your committee think should be left to man and his Creator, without any other ordinance than the fourth commandment. The power to regulate Sunday or any other day as a religious Sabbath, so far from being conferred on the City Council, is by the plain understanding of the constitution and genius of our government, withheld even from the Legislature, who in fact, impliedly permits the dealing with slaves on that day, with the consent of their masters: (1 Rev. Code C. 305, §20) and if the Council have the power to regulate the conduct of men on Sunday as a religious Sabbath, they have equally the power to establish it as a day of rest altogether. And as the evil which gave rise to the ordinance springs out of the fact that on that day the slaves and free negroes, which constitute the larger portion of our labouring class, are out of employment, and therefore much more liable to commit crime, the argument would tend to abolish the Sabbath as a day of rest altogether. This no citizen, of whatever religion, would agree to.

“If it were the intention of the Council to enforce the observance of Sunday as a religious Sabbath, however vain the effort, it would have been more manly, and less liable to misconstruction, at once to have declared that Sunday should be the only religious Sabbath, and then to have ordained, ‘Thou shalt keep holy the Sabbath day;’ and appointed some officer (if such could be found) competent to have the same fulfilled and observed. But your committee are satisfied that this is a misconstruction of the ordinance. It convicts the Council of doing that which they are bound to prevent, for instead of protecting all in the peaceable enjoyment of their own Sabbath, it hinders a large and respectable portion of our citizens from doing it. Your committee conclude this branch of their report, by expressing their conviction that this dangerous power of meddling with the Sabbath as a religious institution, was never designed by a Christian community to be conferred either upon the Legislature or any body corporate which it might create.

“Your committee are well aware that upon the Sabbath, as upon every other day of rest, as they have before remarked, a vicious population of slaves and free negroes are let loose upon the community in idleness; and in the present state of our police, with an almost unlimited scope to indulge their illicit propensities, and that adequate means should be adopted by the Council to check them. But your committee are of opinion, that these means should not be in the enactment of ordinances on the subject, but in a more efficient execution of the statute laws of the commonwealth, much more penal and adequate than any ordinance which can be passed by the Council. The great evil which this ordinance was intended to reach, is the illicit traffic on Sunday with slaves and free negroes, as appears by the report of the committee who introduced the ordinance; an evil amply provided for by the statute laws of Virginia, as will appear by consulting the edition of Tate’s Digest, where they are embodied.

“Your committee are of opinion, that to guard the city from violation of the law from such sources, on Sunday, as well as on every day of rest, or holiday, the city police requires augmentation; and that with such augmentation, if the police efficiently perform the duties prescribed by the acts of assembly referred to, all will be accomplished that is necessary.

“Although the ordinance now in force finds its precedent in a legislative act, your committee are nevertheless opposed to it, not only as being unnecessary, but because it confers upon the magistrate the arbitrary power of deciding upon the acts of men, not in terms defined and prohibited, but which are made criminal or not, according to the exercise of his discretion, as to what is charitable and what is necessary. Your committee are of opinion that every penal law should clearly, and in terms define, the act to be done or omitted, that constitutes the crime; so that the citizen upon looking at the statute should see clearly what act it is that he is prohibited from doing or commanded to do. This ordinance, as well as the statute law upon which it is founded, wants this first element of a penal statute. What a citizen may think a very necessary or a very benevolent, charitable act, and therefore very conscientiously performs it on Sunday, may on Monday morning be considered at the Mayor’s Court a very unnecessary act, and one not at all benevolent or charitable, and he thereby be made an unconscious victim to a difference of opinion upon a subject of necessity, charity, or benevolence, between himself and the magistrate. In the opinion of your committee, it would neither be charitable nor benevolent to subject him to any such ordeal; and they conclude with the expression of an opinion, that this ordinance in fact involves in practice all the odious features of an ex post facto law, and of constructive crime.

“Your committee, with all becoming respect and reverence as they hope for the Sabbath, as claimed by all religious denominations, whether on the use of one day, or the other, respectfully suggest to the Council, that there is no necessity for the continuance of this ordinance; but recommend that the police of the city should be so increased as to have a special police not for Sunday only, as a day of rest, but for any other holidays upon which the Mayor of the city shall think proper to call them into requisition, and that in aid of the general purpose designated, the High Constable of the city be requested to permit the night-watch and all police officers, to qualify as his deputies, for the purpose of aiding more fully in the execution of all the penal laws. It does not occur to your committee, that there is any particular act requiring legislation by the Council, which is not provided for by legislation of the state; but if there be, the committee respectfully suggest to the Council, that the act should be clearly defined by the ordinance prohibiting it.

“Your committee have not thought it proper to go more fully into the reasons which have brought them to the conclusion they have aimed at, which is embodied in the following resolutions:

“1st. Resolved, That it is expedient to repeal the ordinance entitled, ‘An ordinance for the more effectual suppression of Sabbath breaking.’

“2d. Resolved, That it is expedient to increase the city day police to the number of ——, for each ward, whose duties shall be performed on Sundays only, unless, by order of the Mayor, their services shall be required on any other day of rest or holiday.

“3d. Resolved, That the High Constable of the city be requested to permit the night-watch of the city, as well as all the day police officers who may hereafter be appointed, to qualify as his deputies, to aid in the execution of the penal laws of the commonwealth.

“4th. Resolved, That leave be given to bring in an ordinance in accordance with the foregoing resolutions.

Joseph Mayo,
Chairman of Committee.

“The foregoing report having been read:

“On motion of Mr. Crane, it was laid upon the table and ordered to be published among the proceedings of the Council.”