BLAINE AMENDMENTS: An Archaic Vestige of Religious Intolerance

By Frank Santarpia and Ilya Galak

In 1875, James G. Blaine, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, proposed an amendment to the United States Constitution. The amendment, which passed the House but failed to pass the Senate by four votes, would prohibit the use of state funds for “sectarian” schools. It was theorized that providing such funds to religious institutions would be a violation of the Establishment Clause, widely known as the doctrine of “separation of church and state.”

The impetus behind this amendment, we understand now, was a wave of anti-Catholic bigotry which was a recurring theme in American politics during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Though the amendment failed on a national level, it was widely adopted by dozens of states, where they are to this day known as “Blaine Amendments,” archaic laws born of hatred which the United States Supreme Court, in Mitchell v. Helms called a “doctrine born of bigotry [that] should be buried now.” In fact, Blaine Amendments were even demanded as a pre-condition for some states to enter the Union.

New York is one of the states that have such a law in place, and the restriction on government aid to “sectarian” schools and their equivalents that go far beyond any limits in the U.S. Constitution. In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the court held that well designed voucher programs do not violate the Establishment Clause, which should have the effect of clearing the way for states to implement them.

In the Zelman opinion, which was a case to determine the constitutionality of an Ohio program designed to provide tuition aid so that low-income students might “attend participating public or private schools of their parent’s choosing and tutorial aid for students who choose to remain en-rolled in public school. Both religious and nonreligious schools in the district may participate, as may public schools in adjacent school districts. Tuition aid is distributed to parents according to financial need, and where the aid is spent depends solely upon where parents choose to enroll their children.”

The court held that the Ohio program “does not offend the Establishment Clause.” The holding goes on to point out that

“because the program was enacted for the valid secular purpose of providing educational assistance to poor children in a demonstrably failing public school system, the question is whether the program nonetheless has the forbidden effect of advancing or inhibiting religion. This Court’s juris­prudence makes clear that a government aid program is not readily subject to challenge under the Establishment Clause if it is neutral with respect to religion and provides assistance directly to a broad class of citizens who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice… The incidental advancement of a religious mission, or the perceived endorsement of a religious message, is reasonably attributable to the individual aid recipients not the government, whose role ends with the disbursement of benefits.”

Getting past the challenges of the Blaine Amendment will open the path to one of the key aspects of school choice: vouchers. So why does it still stand? If state Senator David Storobin has his way – it won’t. He has recently sponsored legislation to repeal the Blaine Amendment, and has supported the issuance of $9,000 vouchers so that families may opt to send their children to the school of their choice.

Considering that the cost to educate a single child in a public school is now estimated to be more than $20,000, you would think that such measures would garner universal support. It has not, and Sen. Storobin believes that it is the influence of the UFT that fuels the resistance.

“It [the Blaine Amendment] is a convenient excuse for countless Democratic party politicians who take money from the UFT (the teachers’ union) knowing full well that parents are struggling to pay tuition.

“Once the Blaine Amendment is repealed, parents would be able to see real relief. Ideally this aid would take the form of school vouchers, where parents would choose where they can send their children, allowing them to pick the best education for their children and not to be boxed into the failing public schools.”

The rise in the number of private schools – both sectarian and non-sectarian – that would be unleashed by repeal would spur healthy competition in the education field, which is today so dominated by government-run schools. This competition would inevitably lead to better educated young men and women, and could only be good for the community.

School choice is an idea whose time has come. Blaine Amendments are archaic and biased relics of an intolerant past, and their time has certainly gone.

 

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