People v. Ruggles, 1811

8 Johns. 290 (1811)


In The Founders’ Constitution, an anthology of writings (letters, records of debates and early cases) relating to the Federal Constitution, Chief Justice Kent’s opinion in People v. Ruggles is included as Document 62 of the materials underlying the First Amendment (Religion).

People v. Ruggles is the first reported case of prosecution for blasphemy in the State of New York. On September 2, 1810, John Ruggles, speaking in a loud voice in a crowded tavern in Salem, New York, said “Jesus Christ was a bastard, and his mother must be a whore.” He was arrested, charged with blasphemy and tried in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, Washington County, on June 11, 1811. Ruggles was found guilty and Justice Ambrose Spencer sentenced him to three months in prison and fined him $500.

The Supreme Court of Judicature heard the appeal during the August term of 1811. John L. Wendell, counsel for Ruggles, distinguished between the union of church and state in England, and New York’s constitution provision allowing “free toleration to all religions and all kinds of worship” that prohibited any official relationship between church and state. Prosecuting attorney Gold argued that the common law of England, as it stood in 1776, was adopted by the constitution and made part of the law of the State. He asserted that blasphemy was an ancient common law offense that existed independently of the established church.

Chief Justice James Kent delivered the opinion of the unanimous court and stated Though the Constitution has discarded religious establishments, it does not forbid judicial cognizance of those offences against religion and morality which have no reference to any such establishment, or to any particular form of government, but are punishable because they strike at the root of moral obligation, and weaken the security of the social ties. We stand equally in need, now as formerly, of all that moral discipline, and of those principles of virtue, which help to bind society together. The people of this state, in common with the people of this country, profess the general doctrines of Christianity, as the rule of their faith and practice; and to scandalize the author of these doctrines is not only, in a religious point of view, extremely impious, but, even in respect to the obligations due to society, is a gross violation of decency and good order. The Court then affirmed the judgment of the Court of Oyer and Terminer.

During the debates of the Constitutional Convention of 1821, James Kent stated that “The court considered those blasphemous words, uttered with such an intent, as a breach of public morals, and an offence against public decency. They were indictable on the same principle as the act of wantonly going naked, or committing impure and indecent acts in the public streets. It was not because Christianity was established by law, but because Christianity was in fact the religion of this country, the rule of our faith and practice, and the basis of the public morals. Such blasphemy was an outrage upon public decorum, and if sanctioned by our tribunals would shock the moral sense of the country, and degrade our character as a Christian people.” The Constitutional Convention then voted to confirm the Ruggles decision and Chief Justice Kent’s reasoning.

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