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Natural Law

Divine Natural Law

Proponents of divine natural law contend that law must be made to conform to the commands they believe were laid down or inspired by God, or some other deity, who governs according to principles of compassion, truth, and justice. These naturalists assert that the legitimacy of any enacted human law must be measured by its consonance with divine principles of right and wrong. Such principles can be found in various Scriptures, church doctrine, papal decrees, and the decisions of ecclesiastical courts and councils. Human laws that are inconsistent with divine principles of morality, naturalists maintain, are invalid and should neither be enforced nor obeyed. St. Thomas Aquinas, a theologian and philosopher from the thirteenth century, was a leading exponent of divine natural law.

According to Judeo-Christian belief and the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments, were delivered to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. These ten laws represent one example of divine natural law. The Bible and Torah are thought by many to be other sources of divine natural law because their authors are said to have been inspired by a divine spirit. Some Christians point to the CANON LAW of the Catholic Church, which was applied by the ecclesiastical courts of Europe during the Middle Ages, as another source of divine natural law.

Before the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, Europe was divided into two competing jurisdictions—secular and religious. The emperors, kings, and queens of Europe governed the secular jurisdiction, and the pope presided over the religious jurisdiction. The idea that monarchs ruled by "divine right" allowed the secular jurisdiction to acquire some of the authority of religious jurisdiction. Moreover, the notion that a "higher law" transcends the rules enacted by human institutions and that government is bound by this law, also known as the RULE OF LAW, fermented during the struggle between the secular and religious powers in Europe before the American Revolution. For example, HENRY DE BRACTON, an English judge and scholar from the thirteenth century, wrote that a court's allegiance to the law and to God is above its allegiance to any ruler or lawmaker.

The influence of divine natural law pervaded the colonial period of U.S. law. In 1690 English philosopher JOHN LOCKE wrote that all people are born with the inherent rights to life, liberty, and estate. These rights are not unlimited, Locke said, and may only be appropriated according to the fair share earned by the labor of each person. Gluttony and waste of individual liberty are not permitted, Locke argued, because "[n]othing is made by God for man to spoil or destroy."

In the Declaration of Independence, THOMAS JEFFERSON, borrowing from Locke, wrote that "all men are created equal … and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights … [including] life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Jefferson identified the freedom of thought as one of the inalienable rights when he said, "Almighty God has created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint." In Powell v. Pennsylvania, 127 U.S. 678, 8 S. Ct. 1257, 32 L. Ed. 253 (1888), the Supreme Court recognized the importance of the divine influence in early U.S. law, stating that the "right to pursue happiness is placed by the Declaration of Independence among the inalienable rights of man, not by the grace of emperors or kings, or by the force of legislative or constitutional enactments, but by the Creator."

The U.S. Constitution altered the relationship between law and religion. Article VI establishes the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. The FIRST AMENDMENT prohibits the government from establishing a religion, which means that a law may not advance one religion at the expense of another or prefer a general belief in religion to irreligion, atheism, or agnosticism. Although the Supremacy and Establishment Clauses seemingly preclude the judiciary from grounding a decision on Scripture or religious doctrine, state and federal courts have occasionally referred to various sources of divine natural law.

For example, in Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 107 S. Ct. 2573, 96 L. Ed. 2d 510 (1987), the Supreme Court said that "the Founding Fathers believed devotedly that there was a God and that the inalienable rights of man were rooted in Him." In McIlvaine v. Coxe's Lessee, 6 U.S. 280, 2 Cranch 280, 2 L. Ed. 279 (1805), the Supreme Court relied on the Bible as "ancient and venerable" proof that expatriation had long been "practiced, approved, and never restrained."

Confronted with the question as to whether the conveyance of a particular piece of land was legally enforceable, the Supreme Court stated that it would consider "those principles of abstract justice, which the Creator of all things has impressed on the mind of his creature man, and which are admitted to regulate, in a great degree, the rights of civilized nations" (Johnson v. M'Intosh, 21 U.S. 543, 8 Wheat. 543, 5 L. Ed. 681 [1823]). In DRED SCOTT V. SANDFORD, 60 U.S. 393, 19 How. 393, 15 L. Ed. 691 (1856), the Supreme Court held that slaves were the property of their owners and were not entitled to any constitutional protection. In a dissenting opinion, however, Justice JOHN MCLEAN wrote that a "slave is not mere chattel. He bears the impress of his Maker, and is amenable to the laws of God and man."

In the later twentieth century (in a judgment overturned in LAWRENCE V. TEXAS, 539 U.S., 123 S.Ct. 2472, 156 L.Ed.2d 508 [2003]), the Supreme Court relied on Judeo-Christian standards as evidence that homosexual SODOMY is a practice not worthy of constitutional protection because it has been condemned throughout the history of western civilization (Bowers v. Hard-wick, 478 U.S. 186, 106 S. Ct. 2841, 92 L. Ed. 2d 140 [1986] [Burger, J., concurring]). State and federal courts also have considered Judeo-Christian standards when evaluating the constitutionality of statutes prohibiting bigamy and INCEST. For example, Benton v. State, 265 Ga. 648, 461 S.E.2d 202 (1995), upheld the constitutionality of a Georgia statute prohibiting incest.

Despite the sprinkling of cases that have referred to Scripture, religious doctrine, and Judeo-Christian heritage, such sources of divine natural law do not ordinarily form the express basis of judicial decisions. At the same time, it cannot be said that state and federal courts have completely eliminated any reliance on natural law principles. To the contrary, many controversial legal disputes are still decided in accordance with unwritten legal principles that are derived not from religion, but from secular political philosophy.

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