Private school funding decision sparks new interest in Blaine Amendments

WASHINGTON, DC – The June 21 Supreme Court ruling in Carson v. Makin declaring that a Maine tuition assistance program excluding religious schools was unconstitutional and resurrected interest in what are known as the Blaine Amendments.

These amendments prohibited the use of public funds to support private religious schools. To understand the legacy of these amendments is to explore a historic and enduring remnant of American anti-Catholicism.

The original Blaine Amendment was named after Speaker of the House James Blaine, who introduced the proposal to the House of Representatives in 1875. Blaine’s proposed amendment sought to prohibit the use of public funds for schools sectarian.

Judge Samuel A. Alito, writing in 2020 in the Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue decision, said that “the amendment was motivated by a strong prejudice against immigrants, especially Catholic immigrants”.

The amendment passed the House but failed to gain the two-thirds approval in the U.S. Senate needed to send it to the states for ratification. This was not the end of the story, as more than 30 states passed their own Blaine Amendments over the following decades.

The amendment arose out of an increasingly divisive confrontation between advocates of public education with a heavily Protestant-dominated curriculum – including compulsory reading of the King James Bible – and a growing Catholic population that was considered as un-American.

Catholics didn’t want their children to submit to a Protestant curriculum, while their opponents, like President Ulysses S. Grant, didn’t want tax money to go to support “atheistic, pagan, or bigoted teaching.” – that is, Catholic schools.

Like the amendment Blaine proposed in 1875, the state amendments targeted Catholic schools, seen as rivals to state-funded “common schools”. Anti-Catholic educators, such as Horace Mann, believed that the purpose of the schools was “to ‘Americanize’ new Catholic immigrants,” Alito writes.

Alito quoted Mann as saying that the common school movement “worked to raise mankind into the higher and purer regions of civilization, Christianity, and the worship of the true God; all who hinder the progress of this cause do to push the race back into barbarism and idolatry.

But Alito said “Catholic and Jewish schools arose because common schools were not neutral in matters of religion.” On the contrary, they were “culturally Protestant and with curricula and textbooks which, therefore, were full of material that Catholics and Jews found offensive.”

Ironically, Maine didn’t have a Blaine Amendment. Maine’s restriction on funding for private religious schools grew out of a 1982 law that allowed funding for private schools but not for private religious schools.

The Supreme Court, by a vote of 6 to 3, said that while Maine was willing to fund private education, “it cannot disqualify some private schools just because they are religious.”

And although Catholics have opposed the Blaine Amendments for decades, the Maine lawsuit was not brought by Catholics, but by a Protestant family who wanted to send their children to a private religious school of their choice.

Maine’s ruling does not necessarily mean that all discrimination against religious schools is unconstitutional, according to Joshua Dunn, director of the Center for the Study of Government and the Individual at the University of Colorado. Chief Justice John Roberts emphasized “that a state does not have to subsidize private education – but once it does, it must do so on a religiously neutral basis,” Dunn said.

Dunn argues that the next battleground in what he called the “slow-motion execution of the Blaine Amendments” could be charter schools run by religious organizations.

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