The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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The Northwest Ordinance
does not violate the First Amendment

Primary research by Jim Allison. Writing based on that research by Tom Peters. Originally published on the Separation of Church and State Home Page.


The accommodationist argument turns on whether Article III of the Northwest Ordinance did anything that separationists would see as violating the broad interpretation of the First Amendment. Remarkably, however, few scholars (accommodationist or separationist) have produced detailed descriptions of what Article III actually did. Our research suggests that Article III did nothing that can be described as a clear violation of the First Amendment. On the contrary, most of the content of Article III was an expression of grand but unenforceable sentiment that was routinely ignored by the federal government. To be sure, separationists are made uncomfortable by the offhand way Article III seems to link religion with education (more on this below), but beyond this wording, Article III seems like an exceptionally poor ground upon which to base a claim about the desire of the framers to aid religion.

In particular, we note that the first sentence of Article III:

Hence, nothing in the Northwest Ordinance violates the broad interpretation of the First Amendment. It is curious, to say the least, that accommodationists, who routinely read the First Amendment in the most narrow manner possible, read the first sentence of Article III in as broad a manner as possible to find such a violation.