Maine legislator and presidential hopeful James G. Blaine (1830–1893) was a member of Congress in the mid- to late 1800s, a time when Catholic immigrants were flooding into the country and public schools were overwhelmingly Protestant.
Catholic immigrant students were encouraged to assimilate in public schools. Desiring an educational option that was consistent with their community’s religious convictions, Catholic leaders sought to open their own schools and pursued the same access to public funds that common schools enjoyed.
Their proposals might have seemed reasonable to Blaine and the rest of the nation’s leaders at the time had anti-Catholic sentiment in America not been at its peak.
For instance, newspapers and magazines in the mid-1800s regularly published cartoons depicting Irish Catholic immigrants as apes and subhuman creatures. A Harper’s Weekly cartoon by famed cartoonist Thomas Nast even portrayed bishops as crocodiles, crawling from the Atlantic with their mitres ready to devour students in the U.S. public schools.
On December 14, 1875, then-Congressman Blaine introduced an amendment to the U.S. Constitution which would have had the effect of prohibiting Catholic schools from receiving the public funds they requested. Blaine’s proposal would have prevented states from allowing any taxpayer money to flow to any “religious sects”—a term that was well-known code for “Catholic.” His proposal passed overwhelmingly in the House and failed in the Senate by just four votes; however, others in the states and Congressional territories joined his effort.
By 1890, 29 states had restrictions in their state constitutions that blocked public funds from sectarian schools. Many referred to the provisions as Blaine’s amendments in respect to his federal effort. Blaine amendments were even strong-armed into state constitutions as a precondition for new states to join the Union.
Today, more than one-third of the United States is affected by these antiquated and historically bigoted amendments, and even more states are affected by variations on its restrictions.
All too often, opponents of educational freedom cite these laws beyond their original intent in an attempt to thwart families seeking learning alternatives outside the education establishment. To date, more than two dozen legal challenges to school choice have been filed in state courts using Blaine amendments and other similar provisions, with mixed rulings.
Though a state’s Blaine amendment might present challenges for educational choice, many states have prevailed despite them. Indiana, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin are examples of states with strict Blaine amendments that have passed, and whose courts have upheld, strongly funded school voucher programs, all of which have gone on to help tens of thousands of children access the schooling options they need to succeed.
Currently, Montana, Nevada, Florida, Georgia and Douglas County, Colorado are in the midst of Blaine-related litigation in state and federal courts. Colorado’s case is awaiting a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on whether they will accept the case or allow the lower court decision (Colorado Supreme Court) blocking the Douglas County voucher to stand. This is a case that could affect the validity of Blaine amendments in all other states.
In the words of Justice Clarence Thomas, “This doctrine, born of bigotry, should be buried now.” If the courts follow Justice Thomas’s wisdom, more states may grant students the freedom to choose the best educational options that meet their learning needs, and opens the door to a happy and successful future.
States with Blaine Amendments, Compelled Support Clauses
Source: Lindsey M. Burke and Jarrett Stepman, "Breaking Down Blaine Amendments' Indefensible Barrier to Education Choice," Journal of School Choice: International Research and Reform 8, no. 4 (2014), table 1, p. 642, doi:10.1080/15582159.2014.973783.
The Friedman Foundation is on the front lines fighting for educational freedom, having filed amicus briefs in several school choice cases. For more information about Blaine amendments and current litigation, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.