"Hostility to aid to pervasively sectarian schools has a shameful pedigree," Justice Clarence Thomas once noted.
In light of today's ruling in Oklahoma County District Court that Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship funds cannot be used to send special-needs children to sectarian schools, it's worth taking a closer look at that pedigree. In his book Standing for Christ in a Modern Babylon (Crossway, 2003), historian and journalist Marvin Olasky does just that:
Public (that is, government-funded, nonchurch) schooling caught on in the 1840s and thereafter, after the nation’s founders were gone. Many schools were not so much non-sectarian as antisectarian, and anti one faith in particular, Catholicism. Catholics, perceiving the public schools as devoted to teaching Protestantism, worked to set up their own institutions and asked that some of their tax money be used to defray expenses. The response was ugly: Opposition among Protestants to the growing number of Catholic immigrants, largely from Ireland, and concern that children going to Catholic schools would grow up to oppose American liberty led to riots in the 1840s and 1850s. One Philadelphia riot in 1844 resulted in thirteen deaths and the burning down of a Catholic church.
Some writers wanted to stop all immigration, but others looked to public schools to save America. An article in The Massachussetts Teacher in 1851 stated that children of immigrants “must be taught as our own children are taught. We say must be, because in many cases this can only be accomplished by coercion. ... The children must be gathered up and forced into school, and those who resist or impede this plan, whether parents or priests, must be held accountable and punished.” The Wisconsin Teachers’ Association declared in 1865 that “children are the property of the state.”
Ironically, the public schools weren’t doing much to teach Protestantism. The intellectual leader of the public school movement was Horace Mann, a Unitarian who pushed for largely secularized public schools and overcame opposition from Protestants by assuring them that daily readings from the King James Bible and generic moral instruction could continue. He succeeded largely because of bigotry and over the objections of theologians such as R. L. Dabney (the Stonewall Jackson aide), who explained that teaching a person how to use a saw could be done in a value-neutral way, but “dexterity in an art is not education. The latter nurtures a soul, the other only drills a sense-organ or muscle; the one has a mechanical end, the other a moral.”
Nevertheless, bigotry was so rampant that some Protestants were content to try teaching in a religion-less way as long as Catholics would be hard-pressed to maintain their own school system. President Ulysses S. Grant, who called Catholicism a center of “superstition, ambition and ignorance,” proposed in 1875 a Constitutional amendment that would require states to establish government-funded schools, forbid those schools to teach any religious tenets, and prohibit any government funds from going to religious schools. James Blaine, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, introduced the amendment the following week, and it became known as the Blaine Amendment.
The amendment was instantly controversial. Vermont Senator Justin Morrill wrote, “The Catholics will rave, but I suppose there is not one who ever voted for free-men, free-schools, or the Republican party in war or peace.” It easily passed the House of Representatives but was defeated in the Senate, and Blaine lost out in his attempt to become president in 1884. Nevertheless, thirty-seven states during the late 1800s and early 1900s inserted into their state constitutions versions of the Blaine Amendment, sometimes under duress. Congress often required Western territories seeking admission to the Union to have the amendments in their state constitutions. Ironically but biblically (the book of Proverbs notes that “he who digs a pit falls into it”), those amendments are now a major barrier to school choice across the country and to any government funds going to Christian schools.
Arizona’s supreme court recently called that state’s Blaine Amendment “a clear manifestation of ... bigotry” and did not let it sideline a tax credit law that furthers school choice. In 2000 Justice Clarence Thomas attacked the Blaine Amendment by name, noting, “Hostility to aid to pervasively sectarian schools has a shameful pedigree that we do not hesitate to disavow.” He emphasized that “this doctrine, born of bigotry, should be buried now.” If journalists had covered this story, they would have been able to attack accurately the evangelical arrogance of the past, find out today who is willing to have a level playing field for all religions, and see who is pushing for supremacy for his particular worldview.