Repealing a Constitutional Evil
Voters in the state of Florida will have the opportunity to eliminate a provision of their constitution that (according to a recent appellate court’s ruling) requires religious discrimination. The provision is a Blaine Amendment, named after James G. Blaine, a congressman who drove an effort to amend the U.S. Constitution so that Catholics would be excluded from certain public benefits. His efforts were unsuccessful at the national level, but 37 states including Missouri still have a
Blaine-type amendment within their constitutions. Most of these, though, have been rendered only marginally effective toward their original purpose, because the states have either modified them through amendment or the Supreme Court has interpreted them in such a way as to render them inactive.
Here’s the story of how all this came to pass:
The 19th century saw the United States inundated with waves of immigrants, many of whom were members of the Roman Catholic Church. The nation had been, up to that point, almost uniformly Protestant in its religious composition. The influx of hundreds of thousands of new citizens who, it was feared, would challenge the religious orthodoxy and look to Rome for political instruction was more than many Americans were willing to tolerate. Nativist societies emerged whose purpose was to limit the volume of immigration and to regulate the nationality and class of persons allowed to enter the United States. The anti-immigrant attitudes eventually coalesced into support for the American Party, formed in 1843, also called the "Know-Nothings." By the middle of the century, the
Know-Nothings had realized significant political success, winning more than a hundred congressional seats and coming to dominate some state governments.
At the same time that these Nativist attitudes were fermenting, activists such as Horace Mann were pushing for the growth of "common schools" in which the youth of the nation could be taught in matters of faith, as well as in fundamental courses of study. These educators sought to find a sort of moral "common denominator" a set of basic Christian principles to which all Protestant denominations could agree, and which would then be used as part of the curriculum. It was assumed that such a system should be considered "non-sectarian," because no one denomination could exert any special authority for its doctrines and, as a result (according to Mann himself), "[the] system earnestly inculcates all Christian morals; it founds its morals on the basis of religion; it welcomes the religion of the Bible; it allows it to do what it is allowed in no other system, to speak for itself."
To be sure, Mann’s schools required daily reading of the King James Bible, but he viewed this as no more than neutrally presenting the text and allowing the students to draw their own conclusions from it. In the minds of the Protestant majority, this distinguished the educational practice of the common schools from "sectarianism," in which a religious authority indoctrinated the students by exegeting the text for them.
The groundswell of Catholic students posed a serious problem for the common schools, however, because the religious convictions the immigrants brought with them from Europe were not easily compatible with the standardized Christianity advanced by the schools. The conflict is exemplified by the situation New York faced in 1842. As was the case in Mann’s Massachusetts, it was the policy of the New York Public School Society to have the King James version of the Bible which was forbidden by the Catholic Church read in their classrooms, and certain textbooks included historical characterizations that were repugnant to Catholics. The Catholics, under the guidance of Bishop "Dagger John" Hughes, demanded public support for their own schools. They initially won some concessions from the Public School Society, but ultimately the legislature created a City Board of Education to establish new public schools and acted to bar the public funding of "sectarian" schools.
A decade later, similar Catholic efforts in other states were labeled as attempts to "destroy public education" or "subvert basic American principles." These accusations coincided with the rise of the Know-Nothing Party during the election of 1854. Its action against Catholic interests was wide-ranging and swift where they had gained the necessary authority. After their sweeping victory in Massachusetts, the Know-Nothings proposed constitutional amendments that would have denied Roman Catholics the right to hold public office, and limited the franchise to males who had lived for at least 21 years in the United States. They dismissed Irish state-government workers, banned foreign-language instruction in the public schools, and established a special committee charged with the task of liberating women believed to be held captive in convents and nunneries, targeting as well "acts of villainy, injustice, and wrong […] perpetrated with impunity within the walls of said institutions."
The anti-Catholic sentiment carried on beyond the demise of the Know-Nothings, though it was not as prominent during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. James G. Blaine arrived on the national political scene in 1863, having ridden a wave of anti-Catholic, Nativist support from his home in Maine to a seat in the House of Representatives. He served in the House for thirteen years, acting as the Speaker of the House from 1869-1875. True to his base of support, Congressman Blaine made it a personal quest to see that the doors of the public treasury were finally and unquestionably closed to Catholics who wanted money to establish tolerable alternatives to the Protestant-dominated public school system. When, in September 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant called for the passage of a constitutional amendment that would deny public funds to religious organizations, Blaine responded by proposing the constitutional amendment that would come to bear his name, and which he hoped would catapult him to the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1876. It read:
No state shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the exercise thereof; and 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.
Despite Blaine’s failure to get his amendment added to the federal Constitution, the influence of his cause did not disappear; it simply changed form. While Blaine’s supporters could not command the votes necessary for a federal amendment, they
did have the requisite votes to set the terms for new states’ admission into the union. In some incoming states, popular sentiment alone led to the passage of a Blaine Amendment. For others, however, Congress utilized its continuing anti-Catholic sentiment by requiring territories applying for statehood to include a provision in their new state constitution that would echo the restrictions of the Blaine Amendment.
These constitutional provisions are relics of anti-Catholic bigotry. They reflect some of the worst impulses in the human character exclusion and discrimination against those who may think or believe differently from the mainstream and they are directly contrary to the ideals of the First Amendment, which guarantees a right to the free exercise of religion without exclusion from generally available governmental benefits.