The Curious History of the Blaine Amendments

The most common ammunition used by opponents of school choice are state constitutional provisions known as “Blaine Amendments.” The language varies from state to state, but their intent is to prevent government money from funding religious schools.

Now, if this confuses you, because you thought the federal Constitution already provided for such separation between church and state, don’t feel bad. To understand the curious redundancies and occasional contradictions in the Blaine Amendments’ legal history, you need first partake of the Zeitgeist.

In the late 19th century, the U.S. public school system was very robust. State taxes had also routinely been used to support religious schools not controlled by Catholics for decades.

In 1859, a 10-year old schoolboy by the name of Thomas Whall was asked to recite the Ten Commandments to kick off the school day at Eliot School in Boston. Whall delivered the Catholic version of the Decalogue, and was punished for that indiscretion. This triggered the “Eliot School Rebellion,” during which hundreds of Catholic schoolchildren stayed home from school in protest. It was also the flashpoint that would lead to the creation of the Catholic primary and secondary school system that we enjoy today.

James G. Blaine
James G. Blaine, from the Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

At the same time, the U.S. was experiencing an influx of Catholics from many lands. With them came all the fears and prejudices that had inflamed Europe for centuries. New Catholic Americans, in turn, were none too happy with the non-Catholic slant given to Christianity in both public and private schools; this fed into the burgeoning network of private Catholic schools.

Taking his cue from a well-received speech delivered by President Grant in 1875, Maine Congressman and Speaker of the House James G. Blaine proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would prevent states from making “any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It would also guarantee that “no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, 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.”

It was a clear attempt to strike at the Catholic education system while still in its infancy. The U.S. public school system from its onset had taught a version of Christianity as part of its curriculum, but as there was a history of ecumenical cooperation among the non-Catholic sects running the schools, these schools would be exempt from the restrictions outlined in the proposed amendment. Because Catholic schools were run by a single Christian denomination, they were squarely in Blaine’s crosshairs.

The Blaine Amendment failed to pass, but individual states picked up the ball and ran with it. In fact, 36 states passed constitutional amendments preventing state funding of religious organizations. Today, these type of amendments are all colloquially referred to as “Blaine Amendments,” even though the extent of the restrictions they legislate varies widely.

"Religious Freedom" 3-cent Postage Stamp
“Religious Freedom” 3-cent Postage Stamp (USPS)

The progeny of Speaker Blaine’s vendetta are back in the news lately following the decision of the Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer. The state of Missouri cited its Blaine Amendment as the reason it refused a grant to a church for rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires – a program it had in place statewide for all non-profits. The High Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the church.

The decision reverberates throughout the U.S. Catholic school system, as it may provide a helpful precedent that will bolster school voucher programs against legal challenges. The reasoning is that, if the Supreme Court would not tolerate the use of a Blaine Amendment to bar a religious preschool from receiving government money to re-surface a playground, neither will it tolerate the exclusion of a religious option as part of a school voucher program.

It’s worth noting that today, states’ Blaine Amendments tar private non-Catholic schools with the same brush that was devised to restrict Catholic education. As the (non-denominational) wise man once said, “Be careful what you wish for.”

Praying for the Emperor: Catholic Education and Military Service

Although it is a tenet whose popularity has been mercurial at best, I have steadfastly been a believer in the greatness of our country. This is just one of the reasons I believe Catholic education should and does play a big role in the training of the United States’ military officers’ corps.

In fact, just about 10 percent of all Catholic priests have a military background themselves. Twenty percent of those come from military families. As for the brass, every member of the Joint Chiefs except for Marine Corps Commandant Gen. John Amos is a practicing Catholic, according to the Archdiocese for Military Services.

The Davin Brothers: Joseph (Class of 2009), James (Class of 2011), Jason (Class of 2015) and John (Class of 2017), upon graduation from Kennedy Catholic, were all commissioned in the U.S. Marine Corps
The Davin Brothers: Joseph (Class of 2009), James (Class of 2011), Jason (Class of 2015) and John (Class of 2017), upon graduation from Kennedy Catholic, were all commissioned in the U.S. Marine Corps. (Photo by Rick Davin)

Jesus said, “Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” Saint Paul always said, “Pray for the emperor.” All of which is to say, there is nothing in our Christian tradition and heritage which places us at odds with being an active part of civil society and the community in general. When you look at the military, it’s not that they are “war hawks” or out there to wreak carnage and havoc. Here in the United States, we view the military as the first arm of defense for our citizenry and protectors of our way of life.

We’re a great country, built on the principles of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Both of these documents resonate strongly with our Catholic faith, and Christianity in general. Our Judaeo-Christian roots are foundational to our country. In a Catholic school, I think civic pride, love of country, character, and virtue formation all feed into that.

Kennedy Catholic High School has an extraordinary track record as far as Academy acceptances go. We have had a U.S. military Academy acceptance from Kennedy every year since 2010. Five midshipmen from the Annapolis class of 2015 were from Kennedy. Last year we sent a man to West Point, and we sent two to the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point.

President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy leave Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown, Washington, April 29, 1962, after attending Mass. Mrs. Kennedy wears a while mantilla to cover her head. (AP Photo/William J. Smith)

When asked about his time serving on PT 109, no less famous a Catholic and statesman than President John F. Kennedy remarked, “I can imagine a no more rewarding career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.'”

There is something in our formation, and in the Kennedy experience that generates a lot of enthusiasm for this type of life. When you look at the Kennedy students who go on to the service academies you note that they are principled people, they have a desire to serve. They also have a lot of focus, and their act together. They anticipate, early on, the markers that they must meet in order to get to this acceptance. The selection process is highly competitive.

If I sound like a bit of a cheerleader, maybe it’s because all this hits a bit close. I was in the Chaplain Corps in the U.S. Navy. Part of the job of the Chaplain Corps is to say to the men and women serving, “You’re doing a good thing! You’re serving your country, and God is pleased.”