Last week, a federal judge in Denver refused to expand the Douglas County school voucher program to include religious schools. The Colorado Supreme Court had barred religious schools from participating in the program, citing the state’s Blaine Amendment, and a group of families appealed to the federal government on first amendment grounds. They argued that to satisfy the U.S. Constitution, the program has to be neutral toward religion; that is, that families should be allowed to choose religious or non-religious options, so long as neither is given preference over the other.
This case is part of a broader effort around the country to eliminate Blaine Amendments, provisions placed into state constitutions (including Missouri’s) barring public aid to religious schools. Blaine Amendments are named after James G. Blaine, a U.S. Senator from Maine who in 1875 tried to amend the U.S. Constitution to stamp out public dollars flowing to “sectarian” schools. At the time, there was a virulent strain of anti-Catholicism in America, and because “public” schools were actually nominally Protestant (they required students to read the King James Bible and sing Christian hymns) “sectarian” meant Catholic, and many wanted them stamped out.
Efforts by Catholics to make public schools more inclusive were met with resistance, most notably in events like the Philadelphia Bible Riots, which were sparked over allegations that schools in the City of Brotherly Love would allow Catholics students to read their own version of the Bible. In response, Catholics began to create their own schools, where they could impart their values on their children. This, not surprisingly, angered the anti-Catholic bigots who did everything they could to shut these schools down.
Blaine was unsuccessful in his attempt to amend the U.S. Constitution, but was successful in getting states all around the country to put language in theirs. We live with the legacy of this bigotry today, as students look to states for support to attend private schools, many of which are religious.
Interestingly, a case out of Missouri has wound its way to the Supreme Court challenging these provisions (I wrote about it here a couple of months ago), but it is not clear how broad or narrow a decision in that case might be. It could strike down (or uphold) Blaine Amendments in total, or it could rule simply on certain practical applications that might not apply to private schools. It is possible that this Douglas County case could similarly make its way to the Supreme Court, so school choice advocates may have more than one bite at the Blaine Amendment apple.