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Opinion: Blaine amendments are anti-Catholic. So was Proposal C

John O'Neill

Almost 50 years have passed since Michigan approved Proposal C in November 1970, the ballot initiative banning state aid to parochial schools. Though defenders of the ballot initiative argued then (and argue now) that Proposal C was in the spirit of the separation of church and state, the effect of Proposal C — and initiatives across the country known as Blaine Amendments —has been an anti-Catholic agenda.

Studies have since demonstrated that non-public schools save public funds, and public schools have been unable to accommodate the influx coming from closed parochial schools (as indicated by the common grievance over class sizes voiced by public school teachers).

It's been a long time since Proposal C. But it has been even longer since the origin of the Blaine amendments. These were rooted in the attempt by Rep. James Blaine, R-Maine, to pass through Congress a constitutional amendment banning state aid to parochial schools in 1875. The legislation fell short of the necessary two-thirds approval of the U.S. Senate to pass as an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But Blaine's initiative induced statewide campaigns across the country to enact bans on aid to parochial schools.

The Supreme Court is seen under stormy skies in Washington, Thursday, June 20, 2019.

Today there are 37 states (including Michigan) that have Blaine amendments. But the days may be numbered for these rules. The United States Supreme Court will hear arguments Jan. 22 in the case of Espinoza v. State of Montana to decide the constitutional test applied to public aid to parochial schools.

The argument against public aid to parochial schools is predictable. It is said that Blaine Amendments prevent government from having a religious preference and that Blaine amendments preserve the secular tradition of government.

The irony is that the original supporters of Blaine amendments in the 19th Century would disagree. By no means secular, the intent of Blaine amendments was to preserve in public schools the de-facto Protestant curriculum (which sanctioned among other traditions the study of the King James Bible). Nor did proponents of the Blaine amendments even try to hide their anti-Catholic bias. For his own part, President Ulysses S. Grant insisted that Blaine amendments were an effort to curb the influence of Irish Catholic immigrants.

Make no mistake: While Catholics today do not face the level of bigotry typical of the 19th century (or the level of bigotry today that other groups face), the roots of Blaine amendments thrive. Two thirds of religious schools in this country are Catholic. Supporters of Blaine Amendments, including the American Civil Liberties Union, would most likely be more amenable to public aid to private schools if the latter weren't so predominantly Catholic.

Of course, government should have no religious preference, and there must be a separation of church and state. But at issue in Espinoza v. Montana (and in the carnage of Proposal C) is not public aid to any specific religion, but public aid to secular facilities to which all schools must subscribe. In the form of tax credits in Montana and elsewhere, proposed aid to parochial schools is earmarked for secular functions.

Not that Espinoza v. Montana should even be argued. The Supreme Court made clear in the 2000 decision of Mitchell v. Helms that public assistance through tax credits for non-religious operations in parochial schools was not a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Should that decision survive the scrutiny of Espinoza v. Montana (and it will), we might finally bury the religious bigotry propagated by the Blaine amendments. We might also bury the noxious legacy of Proposal C.

John O'Neill is an Allen Park freelance writer.