Education, religion and the separation of Church and State

By Robert Maynard

Vermont Digger ran an article on a Vermont House debate that touched on religious schools.  The debate was over an amendment offered: “By a vote of 74-67, the House voted down an amendment by Rep. Adam Greshin of Warren that would have allowed private school students to participate in the program.”  Here are the arguments from both sides: “Supporters of the amendment argued that the dual enrollment program was created to serve all Vermont students, and those at private and religious schools should not be excluded. Opponents said public funding should not go to private and religious school students.”  The argument that public funding should not go to private religious schools is based on a misunderstanding of the First Amendment and the proper role of religion in society.  On July 13, 1787, when the Continental Congress of the United States passed the “Northwest Ordinance,” it contained the following insight into the public role of 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.”  Religion was seen as necessary to good government and was one of the objectives in encouraging “schools and the means of education.”  That is hardly a call to keep public support from religious schools.  The First Amendment was meant to limit the role of the state to securing our “unalienable rights” and was never meant to restrict the role of religion in the public square.  In fact, a better case can be made that it is the government that should have its role in education reigned in.  The Vermont Constitution was used as an excuse to pass Act 60 and Act 68 to increase the role of the state in providing education.  The problem is that the Vermont Constitution arguably puts a greater responsibility on religious groups to provide education than it does the sate.  Here is the section on education it its entirety:

68. Laws to encourage virtue and prevent vice; schools; religious activities

Laws for the encouragement of virtue and prevention of vice and immorality ought to be constantly kept in force, and duly executed; and a competent number of schools ought to be maintained in each town unless the general assembly permits other provisions for the convenient instruction of youth. All religious societies, or bodies of people that may be united or incorporated for the advancement of religion and learning, or for other pious and charitable purposes, shall be encouraged and protected in the enjoyment of the privileges, immunities, and estates, which they in justice ought to enjoy, under such regulations as the general assembly of this state shall direct.

The use of the word “ought” does not necessarily imply a mandate for state provided education.  First of all, it uses the word “ought”, in the same way that it does in the following section:

Article 3rd. Freedom in religion; right and duty of religious worship

That all persons have a natural and unalienable right, to worship Almighty God, according to the dictates of their own consciences and understandings, as in their opinion shall be regulated by the word of God; and that no person ought to, or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any minister, contrary to the dictates of conscience, nor can any person be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen, on account of religious sentiments, or peculiar mode of religious worship; and that no authority can, or ought to be vested in, or assumed by, any power whatever, that shall in any case interfere with, or in any manner control the rights of conscience, in the free exercise of religious worship. Nevertheless, every sect or denomination of Christians ought to observe the Sabbath or Lord’s day, and keep up some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of God.

The second half of the paragraph on education states that:

All religious societies, or bodies of people that may be united or incorporated for the advancement of religion and learning, or for other pious and charitable purposes, shall be encouraged and protected in the enjoyment of the privileges, immunities, and estates, which they in justice ought to enjoy, under such regulations as the general assembly of this state shall direct.

From this it is logical to conclude that “learning” was more the responsibility of religious bodies than the state and that the state’s role was to encourage and protect them “in the enjoyment of the privileges, immunities, and estates,” as a way of supporting them in carrying out their functions. Such encouragement is not a moral “ought”, but a legal “shall”. How we get from the state mandate to encourage religious societies in the advancement of religion and learning (note that the two were joined together), to the sate usurping that role, is hard to fathom when we read the document in context. The whole section lumped the discouragement of vice, the encouragement of virtue, schools and religious activity in the same context and suggested that it was religious societies which fulfilled this function and that the state supported that function by granting privileges to such organizations. (Tax breaks, etc.)