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Inc. v. Wilson Joseph Burstyn Commissioner of Education of New York etal.

Sacrilege Or Art?

In order to be shown in New York, a film had to be licensed by the state's Department of Education, under the supervision of the Board of Regents. A film could not get a license if:

. . . such film or a part thereof is obscene, indecent, immoral, inhuman, sacrilegious, or is of such a character that its exhibition would tend to corrupt morals or incite to crime . . .

The Miracle had already been granted a license. But after it was shown, the New York State Board of Regents received "hundreds of letters, telegrams, post cards, affidavits and other communications" both protesting against and defending the movie. As a result, the regents took another look at the movie, and decided to rescind its license on the grounds that it was indeed "sacrilegious."

The regents had to consider that the notion of "sacrilege" is a tricky one, for it comes from within religion, not from any governmental or legal tradition. Joseph Burstyn, Inc., the film distributor, immediately brought suit against the regents' action, claiming that the licensing statute violated the Fourteenth Amendment by restraining freedom of speech and press, by breaking down the separation between church and state, and by making use of such a vague term making due process of law impossible.

When Burstyn's case made it to the New York Supreme Court, the judges upheld the state law, including its use of the term "sacrilegious." As that court held, there was "nothing mysterious" about the law or the term:

It is simply this: that no religion, as that word is understood by the ordinary, reasonable person, shall be treated with contempt, mockery, scorn and ridicule . . .

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953Inc. v. Wilson Joseph Burstyn Commissioner of Education of New York etal. - Significance, A Controversial Film, Sacrilege Or Art?, Movies As Free Press, Sacrilege And The Arts