I thought everyone knew about this already, but maybe that's because I read three of the best bloggers around: Ed Brayton, at Dispatches from the Culture Wars; Ed Darrell, at Millard Fillmore's Bathtub; and PZ Myers, at Pharyngula.
Chris Rodda, writing at Daily Kos, has posted a good and thorough analysis of the distortions in the resolution. [see update below] For example:
"Whereas in 1789, Congress, in the midst of framing the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment, passed the first Federal law touching education, declaring that 'Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged';"
Recently, the Christian nationalist history revisionists have begun to refer quite often to this unnamed first federal education law, quoting what Mr. Forbes has quoted here. But, the law they are referring to was not an education law. It was the Northwest Ordinance. Despite the careful phrasing such as calling it a "law touching education," this is a deliberately deceptive way to make the best use of the appearance of the words "religion" and "schools" in the same sentence by linking this to the framers of the First Amendment.
The education provision in Article III of the Northwest Ordinance was the work of a Massachusetts man named Manasseh Cutler, a minister, former army chaplain, and one of the directors of the Ohio Company of Associates, the land speculating company whose large land purchase necessitated the writing of the ordinance. But, the original wording of Cutler's education provision clearly gave the government of the Northwest Territory the authority to promote religion. As much as Congress had to go along with the demands of the Ohio Company, this apparently went too far. The following was the original wording.
"Institutions for the promotion of religion and morality, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."(12)
And, this is what appeared in the ordinance.
"Religion, Morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."
Congress kept enough of the original wording to appease Cutler, but stripped the provision of any actual authority to promote religion or religious institutions. The final language that ended up in Article III only gave the government authority to promote education. The first part of the sentence was turned into nothing more than an ineffectual opinion of what was necessary to good government. When the Congress of 1789 reenacted the ordinance, they knew Article III didn't give the government any power to promote religion. There was no conflict with the First Amendment.
In addition to this, what few people realize is that Article III of the Northwest Ordinance was never even used. It was replaced in the enabling act for the state of Ohio, the very first state to be admitted under the ordinance. The substituted education provision in the 1802 enabling act for Ohio was similar to that in the 1785 Ordinance for ascertaining the mode of disposing of lands in the Western Territory, the ordinance that was replaced in 1787 by the Northwest Ordinance. It provided land grants for schools in lieu of the vague statement about encouraging schools in Article III of the Northwest Ordinance. The same provision was made for subsequent states.==================
I'm hoping the thing never makes it out of committee.
Chris Rodda has posted a second part to the above. Just as good, just as important.
(Thanks to Ed Brayton)