During this period, three concepts are expressed in the Supreme Court cases interpreting the religion clauses of the Constitution:
1) The First Amendment only limited the power of the federal government not the states.
2) Christianity is integrated into the common law of the states. So Christianity is to be encouraged without discrimination between the Christian sects or sanctioning religious persecution against non-Christians.
3) The religious courts within the organizational structure of each sect have the final say in matters of faith and doctrine. While, the state courts have the final say in all civil actions.
First, the First Amendment was written to limit the power of “Congress,” therefore it did not place any limitation on the power of the States. In 1866, the Court said: “If any State were so unwise as to establish a State religion, and require every priest and preacher to be licensed before he attempted to preach or teach, there is no clause in the Federal Constitution that would authorize this court to pronounce the act unconstitutional or void.” The Court went on to say that the states “may make any discrimination in favor of any sect or denomination of Christians, or in favor of the infidel and against the Christian.” Based on this principle, the Court held that a law criminalizing taking the dead to Catholic Churches was a matter of State concern.
Second, Christianity is integrated into the common law of the States. In Vidal v. Girard’s Executors, the Court found that constitutional protections in the state constitution of Pennsylvania, that were similar to Virginia’s constitution, did not eliminate the underlying Christian common law. The Court said that Christianity is part of the common law of the state in the sense that “its divine origin and truth are admitted, and therefore it is not to be maliciously and openly reviled and blasphemed against, to the annoyance of believers or the injury of the public.”
Joseph Story, a Supreme Court Justice from 1811 to 1845, and a professor at Harvard Law School, described the meaning of the Establishment Clause in the following way:
Probably at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and [the First Amendment], the general if not the universal sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the State so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience and the freedom of religious worship.
He went on to say that an attempt to make it state policy to be indifferent to all religions would have been universally condemned. The real purpose of the First Amendment was not to tolerate or advance “[Islam], Judaism or infidelity by prostrating Christianity.” Rather it was to stop “all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment.” In doing so, it cut off the means of using the national government for religious persecution.
Third, civil courts are limited in their competency and jurisdiction. The Court said that it is a well settled principle that the jurisdiction of civil courts is confined to ‘civil action.’ They are not allowed and are not qualified to determine purely “spiritual” or “ecclesiastical” questions just as they are not qualified to determine the abstract truth of scientific questions. If property rights depend upon adherence to a religious doctrine or the judgment of an ecclesiastical court, the civil court will evaluate if the individual adheres to the original doctrines of the church and evaluate if the ecclesiastical court acted within the organization’s articles of incorporation and bylaws. Ecclesiastical court decisions “are final, as they are the best judges of matters of faith, discipline, and doctrine.” On the other hand, if the “Church should undertake to try one of its members of murder…” its sentence would be void.