The Supreme Court will soon issue a verdict in Trinity Lutheran of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, a case in which a Missouri church qualified for a state grant to renovate its playground but was denied because the state’s constitution prohibits giving any funds to religious institutions. The clause in question is known as the Blaine amendment, after the 19th-century Republican congressman who proposed it; although his campaign to do so failed on the federal level, nearly two-thirds of all states adopted such amendments. Explaining the historical context, Philip Hamburger argues that the Supreme Court should strike down Blaine amendments everywhere:
For decades, states had used taxes to support public and private schools controlled by Protestants, with the goal not merely of Americanizing but of Protestantizing Catholic children. There were widespread fears that Catholics would balance this out by voting for politicians, mostly Democrats, who would direct tax funds to public or private schools dominated by Catholics.
Blaine’s amendment appealed to such fears by preventing tax money from coming under the control of any “religious sect.” Existing constitutional provisions against establishments of religion did not bar public spending on education from reaching schools with religious affiliations, and Blaine’s amendment did not propose to alter this arrangement except by excluding Catholics. The Catholic Church, being attached to its orthodoxies, had theological objections to cooperating theologically with Protestants, and it therefore could only operate schools that were distinctly Catholic or “sectarian.” In contrast, Protestants were willing to join with Protestants of other denominations in running schools.
Thus, when the Blaine Amendment stated that public money could not go to institutions belonging to any one “sect,” it effectively proposed to prevent money from reaching Catholic institutions—without cutting off funds for institutions shared by Protestant denominations. . . .
To be sure, states in many instances can reasonably choose not to fund churches. But when the Blaine amendments narrowly single out “sectarian” institutions, or when, as in Missouri, they categorically exclude all ecclesiastically-affiliated institutions, they reveal theologically-driven discrimination.
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