I haven't seen it published anywhere, or cited in any articles or books on blasphemy, so I thought I'd pass it along, since it seems to be one of the few available early decisions on blasphemy. I should note that I'm passing this along solely in case people are curious about it, and in case it helps people in their research -- I'm not trying to make any statement about what the law ought to be, or even about the original meaning of the First Amendment or related state constitutional provisions.
The report is from Law Intelligence, Franklin Gazette, p. 2, Nov. 17, 1818, but it's also reprinted in much the same form in a contemporaneous newspaper article that's available here:
The following paragraph is extracted from the Democratic Press of Saturday last --
"At a meeting of the friends of ROBERT C. MURRAY, held at the Rialto Tavern, No. 130, South Sixth Street, November 13, it was resolved that this meeting highly disaprove of the prosecution of Robert C. Murray for the expression of opinions on the subject of RELIGION, which were the opinions of Franklin and Jefferson, two of the greatest and best men, that ever lived in any age or country -- and that we now adjourn to meet again at this place, on MONDAY EVENING NEXT, at 7 o'clock, and that all enemies of Religious Persecution be invited to attend at that meeting.
JOSEPH AILES, chairman.
"John Syng, secretary."
There is in our code, an unrepealed Act of Assembly, of the year 1700, which punishes with a fine of ten pounds, for the use of the poor, or an imprisonment at hard labour for three months, whomsoever "shall willfully, premeditatedly, and despitefully, blaspheme, or speak loosely and profanely of Almighty God, Christ Jesus, the Holy Spirit or Scriptures of Truth." 1 Smith's State Laws, page 6.
Under this act, Robert C. Murray was indicted at the last Mayor's Court, for Blasphemy. His counsel entered the plea of "Not Guilty" on his behalf; and the case was, in the ordinary way, submitted to a jury of his country.
The evidence for the prosecution was brief, distinct, and forcible. Two witnesses swore that they had heard the defendant, at various times and places, utter the following language -- "That Christ was a bastard -- his mother a w---- and the bible a pack of lies."
In his defence, Robert C. Murray adduced some evidence of the general goodness of his character; and his counsel argued upon the court and the jury, that the law, under which the indictment had been framed was unconstitutional -- that it was inconsistent with, and of course, repealed by the constitution -- and cited the following sections to support their position.
3d Section of Article 9. "That all men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty
God according to the dictates of their own consciences: that no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent; that no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience; and that no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishments or modes of worship."
7th section. "The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the invaluable rights of
man: and every citizen may freely speak, write, and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty."
1st paragraph of the Schedule. "That all laws of this Commonwealth, in force at the time of making the said alterations and amendments in the said constitution, and not inconsistent therewith, &c. shall continue as if the said alterations and amendments had not been made."
On the part of the Commonwealth, it was observed that the Mayor's Court of the City of Philadelphia would hardly venture to adjudge an act of Assembly unconstitutional, which had been published under the sanction of the Legislature, and otherwise recognized, since the adoption of the constitution. That the law was not inconsistent with the provisions in that instrument, to which reference had been made. That a "wilful premeditated, and despiteful blasphemy," such as was charged in the Indictment and proved by the evidience, could not be considered as "the worship of Almighty God according to the dictates of conscience" nor could it be deemed "a right of conscience" -- nor such a free communication of thoughts and opinions" as is justly termed "of the invaluable rights of man." Neither the language nor the spirit of the Constitution could be construed to sanction a licentious, unnecessary, intrusive, and obscene course of profanity, shocking to every upright mind, and which, abstracted from all religious belief, could be uttered no where without exciting sensations of pain, and of extreme repugnance.
The Court, in charging the Jury, merely remarked that as to the law no doubt could be entertained. They were not going to declare any act of Assembly unconstitutional; and if the Defendant thought he could satisfy a higher tribunal that the offence with which he is charged is not indictable in this State, a writ of error would doubtless be granted for the purpose. It was certainly the right of every citizen to entertain what religious opinions he preferred; and, if he felt inclined, to utter them, in a proper manner, without restraint; -- but while one man exercises his rights, let him not offend against the rights of others -- let him not intrude indecently and shockingly upon the sacred belief, and scruples of those who think differently from him. The expression of a mere speculative opinion, in argument or in decent language, is no where censurable. -- but if the Jury think the defendant uttered the expressions which have been given in evidence, wantonly and maliciously, without cause and without provocation, they ought to convict him.
The Jury without retiring from the box, gave in a verdict of "Guilty."
Motions for a new trial, and in arrest of Judgment, were then made by the Defendant's Counsel, which, after argument, were severally dismissed by the Court, and on the following Monday, the Recorder pronounced the subjoined.
You have been convicted of the odious crime of blasphemy, an offence which, to your shame, and the honor of society, is as seldom heard of, as the depravity which excites to it, is hopeless and disgusting. Of the various crimes which, as guardians of the public morals, it is our duty to punish, there are few which circumstances will not in some degree extenuate. The illegal possession of another's property, may be often traced to the pressure of want, whether resulting from misfortune or from unsuccessful crime, and the catalogue of offences from assault to murder, is generally supplied by the operation of real or imaginary wrongs, which animate the victim to hasty and criminal revenge. But for the blasphemer there is no apology. The nature of his transgression forbids the expectation of profitable fame, and of contemporary relief from penury or despair, and instead of being justified by motives of retribution for injuries, he lifts his feeble arm against the author of his being, who pities his infirmities, and extends to him the hand of reconciliation. The blasphemer's aim is mental desolation; he seeks no other recompense than the infliction of despair, and to the honour of a christian people, is rarely listened to but with horror and disgust.
It were painful even if it were desirable, to repeat the language in which you have dared to blaspheme the SAVIOUR OF THE WORLD. It has been attempted to defend you by an appeal to those invaluable rights of freedom of speech, and universal toleration, which, in all matters of religion and conscience, are secured by the constitution. It is said the constitution of this commonwealth contains an implied repeal of the statute on which this prosecution is founded. But obvious indeed, must be the course of implication, to determine the repeal or unconstitutionality of a statute so salutary and necessary, before this court would think themselves justified to abolish a restraint which is to be found in the code of every christian people. For us it is sufficient that the law in question has not only never been repealed, but has actually been recognized as still in force, by a recent publication of the acts of assembly, under the authority of the legislature. In cases like the present, therefore, it is the duty of the court to rely upon the positive provission on the law, and to leave to the supreme tribunal of the state, the resolution of those doubts which have been raised in this case. To that tribunal let our decission be submitted,
To us the terms of the constitution do not appear inconsistent with the provisions of the act of Assembly, Every man possesses an undoubted right to entertain and express his peculiar opinion on the subject of religion, so far as he exercises it without an interference with the religious privileges which the constitution equally secures to his neighbour. The liberty of speech, in matters of this kind, is analogous to the liberty of the press, which guarantees to every citizen "the right to speak, write, and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty."
The application of the law, appears to us, to leave you without a single circumstance to excuse or extenuate your indecency, insolence and crime. -- So far from having emp0loyed the impious and obscene language recited in the indictment, in the heat of argument, or when provoked by opposition, you have obtruded on those, to whom it was peculiarly offensive, and whose happy confidence in the Christian faith, it was your object to destroy. Nor have you confined your malicious activity to the sphere of private conversation. Citizens have been insulted with your profanity and indecency, in the public streets; and, to complete your insolence, you have accosted them with scoffing on their way to public worship. -- It is time you should know that you cannot with impunity sport with the feelings and happiness of your fellow citizens; common decorum and good manners, as well as law and religion, forbid it. You must be taught that respect even to the prejudices of others, on so important a topic as that of religion, is due to the humblest individual in society. Can it be otherwise than criminal, maliciously to destroy the happiness of another, by depriving him of his confidence in revealed religion, and rendering him a prey to doubt and despair? The least malicious injury to the person or property of another is an object of punishment, and it is to accuse our code of the grossest inconsistency, to suppose it less regardless of mental rights, the most indispensable to human happiness.
On a subject of so great importance, and on which you appear hitherto to have been so ignorant and thoughtless we advise you to seek information. -- It cannot fail to impress on your mind a conviction of your errors and your danger, and to induce you to abandon those shocking sentiments, which, whether seriously entertained, or thoughtlessly sported, will, without atonement, terminate in interminable ruin.
Your age and infirmities render you an object of compassion. -- It is time you had reflected on the wickedness of the past, and contemplated the awful certainty of the future, for the day is not far distant, when, without repentance, you will be compelled to acknowledge, under the tortures of a guilty conscience, the truth and power of revealed religion.
The offence of which you have been convicted is too disgusting to be dangerous as an example. -- The Court would nevertheless be justified in imposing upon you the imprisonment at hard labour, authorized by the law; but that punishment, although it would afford you an opportunity for reflection, would deprive you of the means of information, of which we sincerely and earnestly entreat you to avail yourself.
The judgment of the Court is that you pay the sum of 10l. for the use of the poor, being the full amount of the penalty, which the law authorizes, with the costs of prosecution.