The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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R. Freeman Butts on Minor v. Ohio

The following passage is taken from R. Freeman Butts', The American Tradition in Religion and Education, 1950, pp. 138-140:

Research by Jim Allison.


The defendants had pointed out that the Constitution of Ohio, based upon an adaptation of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, contained the following provision:

Religion, morality, and knowledge, however, being essential to good government, it shall be the duty of the general assembly to pass suitable laws to protect every religious denomination in the peaceable enjoyment of its own mode of worship, and to encourage schools and the means of instruction.

They argued from this that the public schools not only were permitted but were required to provide religious instruction in order to fulfill the injunction of the Constitution, irrespective of the wishes or consciences of the people concerned.

The court ruled, however, that the constitutional clause means that the word "knowledge" embraces all that is comprehended in "religion" and "morality" which can be the subject of human instruction. Therefore, nothing was enjoined upon the schools but to encourage the means of instruction of general "knowledge." Judge Welch argued that "religion" and "morality" are aided by the increase and diffusion of "knowledge" and that in this sense all three are essential to good government, but there is no direction given as to what system of knowledge should be taught or what is the true religion, morality, or knowledge. These matters are left to the legislature, subject to the limitations on legislative power regarding religious freedom as contained in the bill of rights. This limitation would prevent the legislature from defining or promoting religious doctrine. The court then points out that what the defendants are really arguing for is that "religion" means the Christian religion. This interpretation cannot be admitted for it would then establish Christianity as the law of the state:

Legal Christianity is a solecism, a contradiction of terms. When Christianity asks the aid of government beyond mere impartial protection, it denies itself. It's laws are divine, not human. Its essential interests lie beyond the reach and range of human government. United with government, religion never rises above the merest superstition; united with religion, government never rises above the merest despotism; and all history shows us that the more widely and completely they are separated, the better is for both.

Religion is not--much less is Christianity or any other particular system of religion--named in the preamble to the constitution of the United States as one of the declared objects of government; nor is it mentioned in the clause in question, in our own constitution, as being essential to anything beyond mere human government."