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Written by John R. Vile, published on January 1, 2017 , last updated on February 18, 2024

Trustees of Philadelphia Baptist Association v. Hart’s Executors (1819)

In Trustees of Philadelphia Baptist Association v. Hart’s Executors, 17 U.S. 1 (1819), the Supreme Court dealt with implications of the First Amendment’s religion clause. Similar to later decisions predicated specifically on the First Amendment, this decision was designed to keep courts out of the business of deciding matters of internal church governance and policy. Although this case did not specifically rest on the First Amendment, it established principles that would later be used in First Amendment cases.


Court tried to clarify charitable inheritance laws to religious organizations

A provision in the will of Silas Hart provided that some of his assets would go “to the Baptist Association that, for ordinary, meets at Philadelphia, annually” for the training of individuals for the ministry. The case originated in Virginia, where the will was executed. Three years prior to Hart’s death the state had repealed all governing English statutes over charitable behests. In this case designed to “certify” [clarify] the law for lower courts, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the decision for a unanimous court.


Court said the organization could not take the trust

Agreeing that “[i]t was obviously the intention of the testator [Hart], that the Association should take in its character as an association; and should, in that character, perform the trust created by the will,” Marshall observed that the association to which Hart had left his assets had not at the time been incorporated and was thus “incapable of taking this trust as a society.” Accordingly, “[a]t the death of the testator . . . there were no persons in existence who were capable to taking the bequest.” The behest was therefore void, and “the property vests, if not otherwise disposed of by the will, in the next of kin.”


John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.


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