Michigan Officials Chided For Promoting Religion (March 1995)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking Gov. John Engler of Michigan for an “equal time” proclamation following his proclamation of “Christian Heritage Week.” The Foundation also suggested that Engler’s protegé, Clark Durant, resign from the Michigan State Board of Education for using his office to promote religion.

Last fall, Engler ordered Michigan citizens to “recognize the importance of Christian beliefs and values . . . to our state.” In an interview about the proclamation, Engler also stated that only believers could be “decent” or “charitable.”

“You owe the nonreligious a loud apology,” wrote the Foundation, for “slandering the nonreligious everywhere. Any kindergartner can tell you that it is not what you believe that makes you a good person, but what you do.” The Foundation proposed that as an apology, Engler issue a “Freethought Week” proclamation, since “there have been many holidays for saints and superstitions in Michigan, but never one commemorating reason, freethought and state/church separation.”

The Foundation also protested the “mission statement” recently adopted without public input by the Michigan Board of Education at the behest of Clark Durant, President of the board.

The controversial statement, containing references to God, religion and what the Foundation called “thinly-veiled” promotion of vouchers and aid to private schools, “veers perilously close to a religious litmus test.”

The statement asserts: “Religion, morality, and knowledge are necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind [sic], so therefore schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

The statement also uses the code words of voucher proponents, calling “for the removal of barriers that constrain efforts to open, sustain and/or expand quality schools and other quality educational opportunities in the marketplace of a free society.”

Advised the Foundation to Durant: “Save your piety for your personal life, and refrain from proselytizing through your public office. Instead of wasting taxpayers time ‘praying for wisdom,’ as the mission statement puts it, we suggest you re-read the Michigan State Constitution. If you cannot support it, please resign for the good of the State of Michigan.”

The Michigan State Constitution contains the usual guarantees that no person “shall be compelled to attend, or against his consent, to contribute to the erection or support of any place of religious worship.”

However, in its section on Education, Art. VIII, Sect. 2, it contains a full paragraph prohibition of any type of public aid or support, direct or indirect, for any private, denominational or other nonpublic school, specifically barring any “payment, credit, tax benefit, exemption of deductions, tuition voucher, subsidy, grant or loan.”

A Michigan practice suporting religious schools with public aid was struck down by the U.S. Supreme court in 1985 in Grand Rapids School District v Ball.

The constitutional prohibition of parochiaid has been the bane of Catholic and fundamentalist officials in Michigan, who have repeatedly called for its repeal. State school board president Durant himself has supported and developed private, religious schools.

“Isn’t it a bit like the fox guarding the chicken coop to have Durant as president of the Board of Education?” asks the Foundation.

Freedom From Religion Foundation