Part 3: How the 1882 Nevada Supreme Court came
to endorse state-based religious discrimination
In 1881, when State Controller James F. Hallock refused to honor an invoice from the Nevada Orphans Asylum for services rendered the State of Nevada, he cited the newly added Section 10, Article 11, of the Nevada Constitution, and noted that the Asylum was managed by the Sisters of Charity, a Catholic religious community.
Upon arrival of the issue before the Nevada Supreme Court, in the State v. Hallock case, the sisters’ attorneys first argued that the case involved a simple contract, which the justices should order the controller to carry out and pay.
On the other hand, if the word “sectarian” in Section 10 was to be an issue, they argued, it should only be understood to refer to, and thus exclude, non-Christians.
“Christianity is a part of the common law of the state of Nevada, as it is of the United States, in the qualified sense that its divine origin and truth are admitted,” they said.
Legally, it was far too weak a response. It did not deal with the word trap that American religious minorities had faced for half a century.
As U.S. Supreme Court justices have acknowledged frequently — see, for example, both Zelman v. Simmons-Harris and Mitchell v. Helms — equivocation upon the meaning of the word sectarian was central to power games successfully played by nativist Protestants in the public arena throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
“[I]t was an open secret that ‘sectarian’ was code for ‘Catholic,’” noted Justice Thomas for the court plurality in Mitchell v. Helms.
Such flimflam over “sectarianism” had serious political utility — first proven before the Civil War, in the successful bid of Horace Mann and his liberal Protestant allies to assert control over Massachusetts community schools.