Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, is reviewing the constitutionality of a 19th-century relic known as “Blaine Amendments” that prohibit public funds from aiding students attending religious schools—particularly Catholic ones.
What most readers probably don’t know is that this blatantly anti-Catholic measure was first promoted by President Ulysses S. Grant. That’s the same Grant, who, as a general in the Civil War, led into battle tens of thousands of Catholic soldiers, defending the Union and opposing slavery.
Here’s the historical background:
Grant, in his pre-Civil War civilian days, had flirted with the anti-Catholic Know Nothing movement. Brought up as an Ohio methodist, he had a jaded eye when it came to Catholics. During the war, for instance, he let it be known that he did not trust Catholic bishops because they were critical of their flock being slaughtered in battle due to Grant’s attrition strategy.
In a speech given on Oct. 29, 1875, before a group of Veterans in Des Moines, Iowa, President Grant warned that money should never “be appropriated for the support of any sectarian school.” Aid to parochial schools, he argued, would wreck public schools, “the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation.” He also stoked the flames of anti-Catholicism with this remark: “If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be the Mason and Dixon’s, but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side and superstition, ambition and ignorance on the other.”
Grant called on Congress to adopt a constitutional amendment directing each state to establish free secular public schools for all children. He also asked Congress to send him legislation that would permit the government to tax church property. Grant believed that this legislation would prevent tyranny “whether directed by the demagogue or by priestcraft.”
Responding to Grant’s appeal, Congressman James G. Blaine of Maine introduced a federal constitutional amendment that would stop the use of any public property, revenues, or loans to support any school or institute of any kind under the control of a religious organization. The bill passed the House, but Democrats killed it in the Senate.
Sadly, the Republicans did not accept the defeat in the House as the final word on the subject. At their 1876 national convention that nominated for president, Governor Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, the GOP included in its platform a plank that opposed funding to Catholic schools. It read: “The public school system of the several states is the bulwark of the American republic; and, with a view to its security and permanence, we recommend an amendment to the constitution of the United States, forbidding the application of any public funds or property for the benefit of any school or institution under sectarian control.”
Like Grant, candidate Hayes did not pull any punches on the subject. At one campaign gathering, he said that if the Bible being read in public schools “[doesn’t] suit other people, let them remain east of the Ohio or go West…. I don’t propose to have them undermine the foundations and pull the house down around our ears without at least a protest.”
When the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a watered-down version of the Blaine Amendment that made the law unenforceable (and seemed thus to open the door for public funding of parochial schools), Hayes condemned it calling it the “Jesuitical Clause.” The Republican-controlled Senate followed Haye’s advice and advanced tough legislation that denied tax dollars to any religious institution for any reason. Senate democrats complaining that the Haye’s version was “nearly an accusation of disloyalty” managed to bottled up the bill.
While the Blaine Amendment did not become part of the U.S. Constitution, 38 states went on to include similar provisions in its state constitutions.
New York was one of those 38 states. At its 1894 Constitutional Convention, controlled by protestant “good government” types, an amendment was approved which “prohibited direct or indirect aid to educational institutions under the direction of a religious denomination.”
Attempts to repeal New York’s Blaine Amendment have failed.
In 1967, for instance, an attempt led by the then archbishop of New York, Francis Cardinal Spellman, supported by diverse political figures, including AFL-CIO President George Meaney, future Democrat governor Hugh Carey, Bishop Fulton Sheen, U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy, and William F. Buckley Jr., went down in flames.
Hopefully, the Supreme Court will kick the Blaine Amendment into the dustbin of history by ruling that local governments can no longer bar students “from access to funding for an otherwise neutral, publicly available program, and from using such funding, based on strictly private choice, at a religious school.”