Curtiss v. Strong, 4 Day 51 (1809), is a case decided by the Supreme Court of Errors of Connecticut that, while affirming the right of individuals of various religious persuasions to testify in court, denied that right to individuals who did not believe in a future state of rewards or punishments. It therefore upheld the lower court decision which had excluded such an individual’s testimony. Law professor Jud Campbell believes this may have been “the most influential American opinion” on the subject in early U.S. history (2019, 443).
The case involved the review of an appeal of a probate judgment on the basis that there had not been three witnesses to a will of Noah Norton, who had died. Curtiss, who was one of the designated heirs of Norton’s will, sued Seth Strong, who was Norton’s executor, seeking to overturn the lower court decision. It had invalidated the will on the basis that it had not been witnessed by three witnesses.
Strong had offered testimony by Ebenezer Robinson, who was one of the original signers, to prove that three witnesses had attested to the will, but the appellate court refused to accept his testimony because other witnesses had testified that Robinson did not believe in future rewards and punishments. Moreover, although it had accepted hearsay testimony from others regarding Robinson’s statements of his beliefs, it did not allow Robinson to testify to his own beliefs.
Court held that testimony could be excluded if witness did not believe in reward, punishment after death
The nine-member Supreme Court of Errors upheld the lower court judgment on the basis of common law understandings. It thus observed that “Every person who does not believe in the obligation of an oath, and a future state of rewards and punishments, or any accountability after death for his conduct, is by law excluded from being a witness; for to such a person the law presumes no credit is to be given. Testimony is not to be received from any person in a court of justice, but under the sanction of an oath. It would therefore be idle to administer an oath to a man who disregards its obligation.” The court did acknowledge that court should accept the testimony of an individual “who believes in the obligation of oath, &c. whatever may be his religious creed, whether Christian, Mahommedan, or Pagan.”
Because testimony showed that Robinson did “not believe in the obligation of an oath, and in a future state of rewards and punishments, or any accountability for his conduct after death . . . [h]e therefore could not be admitted as a witness.” Moreover, the lower court had correctly excluded Robinson as a witness to his own beliefs since “it would seem incongruous to admit a man to his oath for the purpose of learning from him whether he had the necessary qualifications to be sworn.”
One commentator observes that the case illustrates how early state laws, enacted prior to the application of First Amendment rights to the states via the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, epitomized the widespread view that while nonbelievers had the rights to which they would be entitled to within a stateless state of nature, such “natural rights” did not include such “civil rights” as testifying in courts, which did not exist in the state of nature (Campbell 2019, 448-449).
In Atwood v. Welton (1828), another Connecticut judge who cited this case applied the prohibition of testimony to universalists who believed that individuals would receive punishments in this life rather than in the life to come. Later, in 1830, the Connecticut legislature adopted legislation permitting universalists to testify while continuing to withhold the right from atheists.
This article was published July 6, 2023. John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University.