The Supreme Court Should End Anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments
EDITORIAL: After more than a century on the books in more than 30 states, this restrictive legislation needs to go.
Kendra Espinoza, a single mother of two girls, knows well the sacrifices made by many parents to send their children to a religious school. She pulled her daughters out of public school while her youngest child was being bullied and her oldest was struggling with grades. Despite working two jobs, and barely able to afford tuition, Espinoza enrolled her girls in Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell, Montana, where they thrived and hoped to stay.
Espinoza expected a 2015 Montana law, which was designed to allow for state tax credits for donations to a tuition scholarship program for private school students, would help keep her children at the Christian academy. But the Montana Department of Revenue regulated the new program to prohibit tax credits for any scholarship funds going to a religious school. Espinoza and two other parents of Stillwater Christian School students filed suit against Montana’s Department of Revenue.
Eventually the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the law violated the state constitution by allowing religious schools to benefit. The entire tuition tax-credit initiative was shut down. But Stillwater Christian School moms didn’t stop their fight for their children’s education. Their lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and on Jan. 22 the high court heard arguments for Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.
On the merits of the case, which argues the state trampled the First Amendment, free-exercise-of-religion rights of the parents who choose religious schools, the court should side with the parents. But as a matter of justice, the Supreme Court should also strike down the “no aid” to religion law, known as the Blaine Amendment, written into the state constitution of Montana, and, with it, similar provisions in 36 other state constitutions.
Blaine Amendments, incorporated into state constitutions in the late 1800s, prohibit or restrict the support of religious schools with any public aid. They inhibit tuition tax-credit programs like the one in Montana, limit the effectiveness of state-sponsored tuition-assistance programs, undermine special-education initiatives in parochial schools, and have prohibited religious schools from realizing other public benefits, for more than a century.
Education has always been a contentious issue in the U.S., and the government’s approach to schooling has long been tainted by institutional anti-Catholicism. The anti-Catholic history of Blaine Amendments is well documented. They were first devised at a time when public schools across the country taught Protestant doctrine in the classroom. When immigrant Catholic families built their own parochial school systems, anti-Catholic politicians, led by Rep. James G. Blaine of Maine, tried to shut them down by prohibiting tax dollars to benefit religious schools.
In 1875 Congress failed to pass the federal Blaine Amendment. But a majority of states took the matter into their own hands, incorporating “Little Blaines” into their constitutions, effectively banning the use of public funds or other aid for private religious schools. (At the time, these were mostly Catholic institutions). Thus, nearly 150 years later there is still built into the constitutions of 37 U.S. states a set of laws specifically designed to thwart Catholic efforts at Catholic education. They reflect a history of anti-Catholicism in the U.S. and the troubling prejudices of anti-immigrant sentiments. It’s time to cast them aside.
Laws like Montana’s affect many of the 6,287 Catholic schools nationwide that provide excellent education to nearly 1.8 million students, 21% of which are racial minorities and more than 300,000 of which are non-Catholic. Catholic schools (99%), other religious schools (98%) and private non-sectarian schools (94%) have graduation rates upward of 90%, according to the National Catholic Education Association’s 2018-2019 data report. Public education graduate rates trail at 84%.
The average public school spends nearly $12,000 per student each year. Parents who send their children to religious schools often pay hefty tuition fees, while also paying taxes that support public schools. Tax-credit scholarship programs and other school-choice initiatives aim to let parents make the best educational decisions for their children, and, in turn, the schools support the public good by turning out the highest performing graduates.
State Blaine Amendments were dealt a crippling blow in 2017, when the Supreme Court ruled in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer that a Missouri preschool shouldn’t be barred from a state grant program that provided recycled tires to playgrounds across the state simply because it is connected to a church.
But even while religious schools are beginning to be treated more fairly in the courts, and while anti-Catholicism may no longer be a driving political force in America, teachers’ unions and public-school districts are threatened by anything that challenges their monopoly on education. Today, Blaine Amendments are used by powerful public-education lobbyists to thwart the freedom of parents and the effectiveness of Catholic and other religious schools.
And they undermine the rights of parents to make the best choices for their families. They also fail to recognize an important truth: Catholic schools work, for students, families and entire communities. And they deserve to be treated fairly.