States Said Religion Was Foundational to Public Schools—And Now It’s Illegal

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Most people don’t read their State constitution, but they should. In many ways, your State constitution is more important than the U.S. Constitution (which was mostly intended as a limiting document on the federal government).

That is certainly the case when it comes to education. This is because the U.S. Constitution grants the federal government no power over education. The only reason the federal government has any role in education is because it bribes the States with money. If a State were to refuse the money (yeah right . . . ), it would have complete autonomy over education.

However, even with federal interference, most of the power regarding education belongs to the States. In early American history, the States stayed out of education and left it to parents and the private sector (except for New England). In the mid-1800s the States really began to push for State-funded school systems (a.k.a. “public schools”), which they have continued to this day.

Religion Is Foundational to Education

What is fascinating, though, is to look at what State constitutions actually say about education. Today we assume that States established public schools as secular and non-religious, mostly due to the Supreme Court’s banning of prayer and Bible reading in the 1960s.

But it was the exact opposite of this.

For example, the Constitution of my home State of Michigan explicitly bases education in religion:

Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged (Mich. Const. Art. VIII, § 1, Sec. 1).

While it may be pointed out that some State constitutions are quite old, public education for most States is not. And most State constitutions have either been rewritten or amended to reflect this. Thus the above Michigan Constitution is actually from 1963! And the quoted section was based on the former State Constitution of 1908. (This clause comes directly from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Article 3.)

The Michigan Constitution requires the legislature to “maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools” (Mich. Const. Art. VIII, § 2, Sec. 2). But the basis for these State schools is “religion, morality, and knowledge," which are “necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind.”

That is a profound statement. Everyone wants “good government” and “happiness.” What do we need for these things? “Religion, morality, and knowledge.”

Now I would say that we don’t need just any religion. We want true religion, which I believe is Christianity. And we must specify which morality we will teach. I would argue for Christian morality. Knowledge too is not neutral. We want knowledge and wisdom from a Christian perspective.

And it is not a stretch to assume that Michigan’s Constitution was speaking of the Christian religion. For the majority of the citizens of Michigan in 1908 and 1963 were Christians.

Foundationless Schools

The problem is that public schools no longer teach religion, let alone Christianity. The States have been prohibited from doing so by some U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s. These decisions can be described as nothing short of an abuse of power.

But if the States cannot teach “religion,” they are left only with “morality and knowledge.” Unfortunately, this leaves them with a secular and atheistic “morality.” This is because morality is based in religion. Without a divine Being showing us how to live, morality becomes subjective.

This means States are essentially left teaching “knowledge.” But knowledge without religion or morality is mere knowledge. It serves no greater goal. It can make for very bad citizens. 

The Michigan Constitution says that “religion, morality, and knowledge” are “necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind.” Is it really any surprise then that once religion and morality have been expelled from schools that we have seen the decline in both the quality of government and the happiness of humans?

It’s interesting that men of an earlier age believed religion to be essential to government and happiness—and therefore essential to education. Yet most people today don’t agree. “Religion is a thing of the past,” they say.

Maybe this is why our schools are crumbling.