The Supreme Court may finally undo the legacy of 19th-century anti-Catholic bigotry.
American religious schools have gotten a bad deal for centuries, but they’ll finally get their day in court next year. The Supreme Court recently decided to hear a case challenging Montana’s anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment in its next term. The high court could unravel the antireligious bias written into the constitutions of Montana and dozens of other states—and improve the lives of millions of children trapped in underperforming public schools.
The Blaine Amendments were a response to Roman Catholic, mostly Irish, immigration to the U.S. in the 19th century. Rep. James G. Blaine, a Republican from Maine, pushed for a federal constitutional amendment that would ban public support for religious schools. In 1875 Rutherford B. Hayes told Blaine that the Republican Party had “been losing strength in Ohio for several years by emigration of Republican farmers.” Hayes, who served nonconsecutive terms as Ohio’s governor, explained that “in their place have come Catholic foreigners. . . . We shall crowd them on the school and other state issues.” While Blaine’s effort failed in the Senate, a majority of states amended their constitutions to incorporate his idea.
Even so, Catholic schools saw tremendous growth from the 1880s through the 1960s. Enrollment has shrunk since then, but 3.8 million students still attend religious schools in the U.S. Catholic schools serve close to two million students, more than 900,000 in urban areas. They survived the 20th century by adapting to the largely black and Hispanic communities that replaced the Irish, Italian and Polish Catholics in urban parishes.
Countless inner-city families—religious or not—have seen Catholic schools as the only viable alternative to failing public schools, especially before charter schools became an option. Eventually the wealthy began to provide Catholic-school scholarships to poor students. In New York City, three private organizations provide $35 million a year in scholarships for Catholic and non-Catholic private schools. The Children’s Scholarship Fund, which has affiliates across the country, has distributed $789 million over the past two decades.
The research and advocacy group Ed Choice estimates that close to 275,000 students were awarded tuition-tax-credit scholarships for private schools in the most recent school year. It’s an impressive number, but still less than 5% of the five million private-school children in the country. A large need remains, particularly in poor areas. Tuition tax credits are a cost-effective way of meeting it. Ed Choice reports the Montana tax credit program caps eligible scholarships at 50% of statewide per pupil spending and requires organizations to limit the average scholarship to 30% of statewide per pupil spending.
In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the court will decide whether the Blaine Amendment can be used to ban tuition-tax-credit programs from using philanthropic dollars to help students attend religious schools. A state trial judge held that the tax credit didn’t violate the Montana Constitution because it didn’t “involve the expenditure of money that the state has in its treasury.” The Montana Supreme Court reversed that decision, and the issue is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. If the high court invalidates this ban while also taking on the anti-immigrant bigotry at the heart of the Blaine Amendments, other states won’t be able to hide behind the law to deny support to religious schools.
Opponents argue that tuition tax credits could empower “ultraorthodox” or “fundamentalist” religious schools that provide subpar secular education. Nearly all schools, public or private, must be licensed by the state and follow general curricular guidelines. Moreover, tuition tax credits fund scholarships awarded by private nonprofits that typically perform due diligence in terms of academic standards. A combination of light oversight by the state education department and research on the part of participating scholarship programs should be enough.
Despite the dark history of the Blaine Amendment, the U.S. generally accepts and accommodates communities with a range of religious belief and fervor. But the undercurrent of bigotry has never gone away. In the past Catholics were accused of disloyalty in the same way that observant Muslims and Hasidic Jews are today. Yet Catholics dug in and built a sustainable education system. Today, given how the public sector has crowded out much of civil society, replicating the success of Catholic schools will be much harder for newer immigrants.
The U.S. becomes stronger when it bends to accommodate new religious groups rather than treating them as less than full Americans. Their ability to use schools of their religion as their children engage the larger American culture should be their right. Laws named for a 19th-century nativist bigot should not stand in the way.
This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal (paywall)
Ray Domanico is the director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute.
Photo by Brooke/Getty Images (Hulton Archive)