James Gillespie Blaine led an interesting life. He served as speaker of the House of Representatives and in the United States Senate. Twice he served as secretary of state, holding the position under three separate presidents. He even sought the presidency, losing to Grover Cleveland.
Blaine’s most notorious legacy, however, is an amendment bearing his name.
Blaine got his idea from a fiery speech delivered by President Ulysses Grant at the height of a national controversy over whether religion had any place within the nation’s public schools. In 1875, President Grant declared, “Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate.”
Days later, Blaine introduced a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution that would prevent any government aid to “sectarian schools,” targeting Catholic schools in particular.
His federal amendment failed, but various states borrowed his proposal and their own constitutions were amended instead. Today, almost 40 states have a constitutional provision that prevents government aid to religious institutions. These state constitutional amendments have empowered states to legally discriminate against religious organizations when they perform the same work secular institutions do.
For years, activists have used Blaine Amendments to successfully exclude religious individuals and organizations from benefitting from public benefits. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote of Blaine Amendments in the 2000 decision of Mitchell v. Helms, “This doctrine, born of bigotry, should be buried now.”
But Blaine’s legacy still lives. Just a few years ago, in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, many who hoped to attend the funeral of Blaine Amendments were disappointed when the Court stopped just short of killing Blaine. A frustrated Chief Justice John Roberts observed in the majority opinion that the Blaine Amendment at issue in Trinity Lutheran put the church to the choice of either operating as a church or “automatic and absolute exclusion from the benefits of a public program for which the [church] is otherwise fully qualified.”
How can that still stand in the year 2020? Place two organizations on equal footing — one of whom is charitably motivated because of its secularity and the other by its religious convictions. Yet only the secular organization qualifies for participation in public programs.
In fact, government officials need not rely upon the overall ability, educational or professional qualifications, financial stability, or facilities of a religious organization to decide whether it may participate. Rather, they may exclude religious organizations because they are religious organizations. Their religion may be the sole criterion for exclusion.
This week, the Supreme Court justices will have another crack at Blaine’s legacy. In Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue, parents of young children challenge the state’s denial of the use of scholarship funds for their children to attend a religious school. The funds come from private donations for which individuals and/or organizations receive a tax credit. Montana contends this administrative act of government conceding taxes for charitable donations necessarily excludes the religious from participation.
First Liberty Institute, where I work, has experience with this. In fact, we have a good friend with more than a little personal experience. The state of Washington used its Blaine Amendment to deny Joshua Davey a promise scholarship that he intended to use to study for religious ministry at a religious college. His case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004, where the court upheld Washington’s decision in Locke v. Davey.
But, Davey, inspired by the attorneys who helped him with his case, went to Harvard Law School instead and now has a thriving law practice in North Carolina. He partnered with First Liberty to draft a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Espinozas.
We argue on behalf of another client from Benton County, Washington, Forge Youth Mentoring. There, county officials ultimately decided not end their grant to Forge, which was among the only mentoring groups lending help to the troubled youth of their community. But that came only after First Liberty got involved. Otherwise, Blaine would have claimed yet another victim.
Religious organizations are as deserving of participation in public programs as anybody else. It was wrong for Blaine and his ilk to insist upon excluding Catholics from such participation in the 1800s. Insisting that we sanitize the public square of religious organizations merely begets a government intent on enforcing what Attorney General William Barr might refer to as “militant secularism.”
Rather, the promise of the First Amendment is — at the very least — that government will be neutral towards religion. This welcomes religious organizations to compete in the public square on equal footing with other organizations. If they are to be denied, let it be for legitimate reasons having not the whiff of religious discrimination. Government should never tolerate the codification of religious bigotry.
Jeremy Dys (@JeremyDys) is Special Counsel for Litigation and Communications for First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all Americans. Read more at FirstLiberty.org.