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Did the Supreme Court of New York, in an 1811 decision, ever say that the First Amendment was "never meant to withdraw religion...from all consideration and notice of the law?"

Research by Jim Allison. Writing by Tom Peters.

On page 248 of his The Myth of Separation, David Barton provides us with a highly edited quotation from The People v. Ruggles, an 1811 decision by the Supreme Court of the State of New York. The case involved a man arrested for publicly criticizing the Christian religion. Barton quotes the decision (written by Chief Justice James Kent) as follows:

Note that Barton puts the words "First Amendment" in brackets. In doing so, Barton indicates that these words are not in the original quotation, but are being provided for the sake of context. But is this quotation really about the First Amendment, or is Barton taking this quotation out of context?

Here's the quotation in full (the material reproduced by Barton is in capital letters):

Clearly, the "declaration" refered to in the quotation above is not the First Amendment. Rather, the reference is to Article 38 of the New York State Constitution. Barton simply omits the words that furnish the proper context of the quote, and then adds words in brackets that provide a false context.

It is impossible to explain Barton's editing of this quote as an honest mistake. Kent's reference to Article 38 is explicit, as is his quotation of the Article's language. Indeed, Kent's argument depends on this language; he quotes it as if it self-evidently supports his narrow view of establishment. That the author of a 336 page book would misunderstand this language passes belief. Conversely, if this is an honest mistake, it is telling evidence against Barton's competence as a reader and editor.

This isn't the only place Barton gets into trouble over The People v. Ruggles. On pages 55-58 of The Myth of Separation, Barton reproduces almost two pages of quotes from the decision. Once again, however, the reference to, and quotation from, Article 38 is omitted. On the top of page 56 there is one quotation that references the New York State Constitution; we think this puts Barton in a very difficult situation: if he knew on page 56 that The People v. Ruggles was about the New York Constitution, why did he introduce the words "First Amendment" on page 248? And, outside of this single quote, all of Barton's other references in this section are to simply "the constitution" or "the Constitution," which might well lead readers to conclude that Justice Kent is talking about the federal Constitution. On page 58, for example, Barton says of Kent's opinion:

In this case Barton inserts the words "The Constitution" in brackets when the actual reference is to Article 38 of the New York Constitution. While this isn't as blatant as inserting the words "First Amendment," Barton's reference seems calculated to make the reader think that Kent is talking about the Federal Constitution.

Barton's editing of The People v. Ruggles is both selective and dishonest. Barton does everything he can to obscure the fact that The People v. Ruggles has nothing to do with the federal Constitution or the First Amendment. His vague references to "the Constitution," and his editing out of any mention of Article 38, completely obscures the context of the decision, and his insertion of the words "First Amendment" on page 248 is flatly incorrect.

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