No money raised by taxation in any State, for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefore, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect, nor shall any money so raised, or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.
In 1875, this language nearly became part of the Constitution of the United States. While the effort failed on a national scale, state efforts to forbid such funding did become part of 37 state constitutions. Those passages are known as “Blaine Amendments.”
The prime mover of this effort was James G. Blane (1830-1893), Senator from Maine, Secretary of State under three presidents, and the Republican nominee for President in 1884. He was also virulently anti-Catholic.
Ironically, his anti-Catholicism may have cost Sen. Blaine the presidency. One of his supporters gave a speech that referred to the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion”—linking the Church to supposedly drunken immigrants and the losing side in the Civil War. This language incensed many Irish and German Catholics, especially in New York. As it turned out, New York was the key to the 1884 election—and Mr. Blaine lost it by 1,149 votes.
Protestant Public Schools
Public education was established in the United States around 1835. Schools functioned within a Protestant framework. Non-sectarian prayers opened the day, and readings from the King James Version of the Bible were common. Many lessons carried religious themes.
Such religious references expressed what might be called “Ten Commandments Christianity.” They are in many ways different from the moral sewers that modern public schools have become. However, they must be considered against a backdrop of the then-common anti-Catholicism in American Education.
In the case of Espinosa vs. Montana Department of Revenue (2020), Justice Samuel Alito summarized this unfortunate aspect of American Protestant attitudes.
Catholics were considered by such groups [as the Know-Nothings, an anti-Catholic political party] not as citizens of the United States, but as “soldiers of the Church of Rome,” who “would attempt to subvert representative government.” Catholic education was a particular concern. As one series of newspaper articles argued, “‘Popery is the natural enemy of general education. . . . If it is establishing schools, it is to make them prisons of the youthful intellect of the country.’”
Old Ideas with Modern Effects
Besides their anti-Catholic orientation, the Blaine Amendments are harmful for two other reasons.
First, the amendments used the erroneous phrase “separation of church and state” as a supposed way to protect the state from the power of the Church. It helps perpetuate nightmares that still haunt many modern leftists and libertarians that religious tyranny will take over the United States. A recent example was the hearing in which Senator Diane Feinstein told Judge (now Justice) Amy Coney Barret that “The dogma lives loudly within you.”
The other reason is that the amendments are cornerstones of the virtual monopoly that teachers’ unions have over education. These unions did not exist during Sen. Blaine’s lifetime, but they have been trading on his influence for decades. Like all successful monopolists, they will fight to maintain their privileged position. Like true ideologues, they will also defend their distorted vision of education without morals.
The Blaine amendment is now being challenged in Michigan. Unlike many other states, Michigan’s Blaine Amendment is relatively new—and it is the focus of a case making its way through the federal courts.
Enshrining Anti-Catholic Bigotry into Law
In 1970, the Michigan State Legislature considered a proposal to provide $150 for each student in a non-state school. The vast majority of such schools—then and now—were Catholic. The bill’s promoters reasoned that each child educated in a non-state school saved the State of Michigan much more than $150. Therefore, it made economic sense to extend some financial assistance to those schools.
However, the Michigan State Education Association (MSEA), the state’s teachers’ union, was not interested in economic logic. It saw a crack in the carefully designed public school fortress built using taxpayer dollars. Public school teachers were MSEA members, something that could not be said for most teachers in Catholic schools.
The MSEA devised a sinister-sounding name to describe tax money going to non-state schools—“Parochiaid” and got it on the state ballot in the fall of 1970. Every newspaper and television station discussed the “threat” of Parochiaid. In the end, almost 57% of Michigan voters added this language to the Michigan Constitution:
No public monies or property shall be appropriated or paid or any public credit utilized… to aid or maintain any private, denominational or other nonpublic, pre-elementary, elementary, or secondary school. No payment, credit, tax benefit, exemption or deductions, tuition voucher, subsidy, grant or loan of public monies or property shall be provided, directly or indirectly, to support the attendance of any student or the employment of any person at any such nonpublic school or at any location or institution where instruction is offered in whole or in part to such nonpublic school students.
Is Relief in Sight?
That language is the focus of Hile v. Michigan, now before a federal court. At stake is the use of money saved by parents in accounts referred to as “529 Plans.” These plans allow parents to set aside money for their children’s education that is excluded from federal income taxes.
Initially, Congress intended 523 Plans to help parents pay their children’s college expenses. However, in 2017, Congress extended the program to private elementary and high schools.
Some states tried to allow parents to use that money for secular private schools but not religious schools. The Supreme Court ruled against this interpretation in the Espinosa Case, quoted above.
Michigan claims its Blaine amendment falls outside of the Espinosa decision because it excludes all nonpublic schools—secular and religious alike.
Although its future is uncertain, the Hile case could make it to the Supreme Court. Many organizations favoring school competition hope that the Court will declare Blane Amendments unconstitutional once and for all.
The Blaine Amendments were produced out of rabid anti-Catholicism to fix a problem that never existed. School taxes exist to pay for instruction, not create a state-run education monopoly. The public is now aware that schools misuse much of that money to promote radical ideologies. Abolishing Blaine Amendments is a step toward freeing parents from this cruel hold on American education that jeopardizes their children.