Is It “Bigotry” to Leave Religious Schools Out?

Don’t believe the hype. If you’ve been following the Espinoza v. Montana case, you’ve likely heard the argument that Montana’s constitutional prohibition against funding religious schools is rooted solely in old anti-Catholic bigotry. In order to understand why that’s not an adequate argument, we need to understand the 19th-century distinction between a “sectarian” school and a “religious” school.IJ BlaineFirst, a little background: The Espinoza case resulted from the desire of parents to use state vouchers to send their children to religious schools. Montana has a “baby Blaine” line in its constitution forbidding any funding of religious schools. The plaintiffs contend that these rules are discriminatory. If states fund any private schools, the argument goes, they cannot exclude religious schools simply because they are religious.

The Blaine Amendment itself failed. It was an attempt to change the US Constitution to prohibit tax funding for “sectarian” schools. The language was taken up by states, however, and inserted into dozens of state constitutions, including Montana’s. The original 1875 language proposed the following:

No state shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any state for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefore, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect, nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.

Back in the 1870s, the biggest “sect or denomination” that was competing for tax funding was the growing Catholic Church. For that reason, some conservative activists claim these constitutional amendments are rooted in “anti-Catholic bigotry.” An activist legal group, the Institute for Justice, represents the plaintiffs in this case. As they put it,

Blaine Amendments are controversial state constitutional provisions rooted in 19th century anti-Catholic bigotry. Their purpose was to prevent the government from funding Catholic schools. Today, opponents of educational choice employ Blaine Amendments—found in 37 state constitutions—as blunt weapons with which they attempt to block modern educational choice programs.

The argument has been around for a while. In 2000, Justice Clarence Thomas signaled his agreement that baby-Blaine amendments were merely crude anti-Catholicism. As Thomas wrote,

Consideration of the [Blaine] amendment arose at a time of pervasive hostility to the Catholic Church and to Catholics in general, and it was an open secret that “sectarian” was code for “Catholic.”

And that’s the rub. To our ears, the word “sectarian” has lost its old meaning. When we talk about “religious” schools, we generally mean something very different from what Americans generally meant in the 1870s or 1810s. To make sense of the history being bandied about in today’s argument, we need to understand the ways people used the term “sectarian” back in the 1800s.

So, first, were Blaine amendments anti-Catholic? Well, yes. They were rooted in ugly post-war politics of race and religion. Back then, Democrats accused Republicans of being “soft” on white supremacy. And Republicans accused Democrats of being “soft” on Protestant supremacy. In this race to the bottom, Republicans like Blaine hoped to bolster their political careers by appearing to be “hard” on Protestant supremacy, even though Blaine himself came from a Catholic family. (It’s complicated.)

But was “sectarian” simply code for “Catholic?” No. The politics of the Blaine amendments were more complicated than that. For decades, public schools had been evolving toward something similar to the way they are today.

One big difference back then was that all public schools were far more “religious” than they are today. It was typical and expected (and often legally required) that school would start with a teacher-led prayer and that students would read from the Bible in a devotional way.

Throughout the 19th century, public leaders generally agreed that public schools should be religious in that way, but not “sectarian.” What did they mean by “sectarian?” In short, “sectarian” meant any religious practice that was not commonly shared among Protestant groups. “Sectarian” meant teaching a certain denominational belief, such as Calvinism or Arminianism. “Sectarian” meant teaching any controversial religious idea, such as adult or child baptism. And accusations of “sectarianism” tended to be biased against a lot of different religious groups, including Catholics, but also Quakers, Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons/LDS, and many others.

Maybe a few examples from my current research will help illustrate the 19th-century distinction. As cities such as Philadelphia and New York set up their first public schools in the early 1800s, this distinction between “religious” (as we know it) and “sectarian” (as they thought of it) was usually considered too obvious to be spelled out. It was assumed that all public schools would actively teach generic Christian religion, but that none of them would promote any “sectarian” idea.

Adelphi religionConsider, for example, the policy of the Adelphi School in Philadelphia at the start of the century. All students were exhorted to follow basic rules of Christian morality and “strive to be good children by loving [their] HEAVENLY FATHER.” The school founders told parents—without seeing any contradiction—that the school would not teach any religion. It would only instruct the children in reading the Bible and following “Christian morality.”

In New York, too, the Free School Society assumed its public schools would be full of religion, but devoid of sectarianism. What was the distinction? They claimed their board of trustees in 1814 included men from “nearly every religious denomination.” They carefully tallied up their students’ religious preferences, including 271 Presbyterians, 186 Episcopalians, 172 Methodists, 119 Baptists, 41 “Dutch church,” and 9 Roman Catholics. Every student read from the Bible every day in school, and on Tuesday mornings all students were pulled out of school to attend catechism classes at their church of choice.

The distinction that mattered in the 19th century was that “sectarian” education would never receive tax funding. The guiding principle was that tax dollars would not pay to teach children specific religious ideas that were not generally shared. As public thinking about religion and public education evolved over the twentieth century, the difficulties of defining a “sectarian” idea led US courts—including SCOTUS—to rule that public schools had to exclude more and more religious practice. In the 1960s, SCOTUS ruled that ecumenical prayers and Bible-reading were too religious for public schools, meaning they were not beyond controversy. Some students didn’t want to pray or read from the Bible. There was no such thing, 20th-century SCOTUS decided, as “non-sectarian” religious practices.

The distinction has a long history: Public schools have always been expected to avoid any controversial religious teaching. They have been expected to avoid—in 19th-century terms—any “sectarian” indoctrination.

What does that mean for Espinoza? Are the plaintiffs correct that they should receive tax funding for their religious schools? No. Not if SCOTUS wants to respect the two-century-old precedent of American public education. The general goal of public schools when it comes to religion is to avoid using tax money to pay for any controversial doctrine, any “sectarian” idea. And that is precisely the goal of Ms. Espinoza and the Institute for Justice.

A Story We Should Care More About

Every new story about creationist teachers or praying cheerleaders gets lots of attention, but the news we should really care about involves the humdrum topics of taxes and school funding. As creationist hero William Jennings Bryan put it in the 1920s, “The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.” In Alabama, conservatives passed a law allowing taxpayers to write their paychecks in a different way. Yesterday, the state Supreme Court started hearing arguments about this new conservative strategy. This story is one we should all follow as if it were interesting. After all, it promises to give an answer that no praying cheerleader ever could: Will conservative taxpayers be able to rule the school?

Don’t look at us: Study school-funding laws!

Don’t look at us: Study school-funding laws!

The Alabama Accountability Act allows taxpayers to divert their tax money away from public schools and toward private ones. Alabama is not alone. More than a dozen states have similar laws on the books. What the justices decide in Alabama might direct debate about these laws nationwide.

Of course, not all the laws are the same. As the National Council of State Legislatures reported, as of April 2014, 14 states had some sort of tax-direction law. In general, these laws allow people to shift some of their taxes to scholarship funding organizations (SFOs). Instead of the tax money going to the government, it goes to these organizations. In turn, the SFOs defray the cost of private school for selected students.

Why should we care? Some critics of these laws insist that the laws are intended to break down the wall of separation between church and state. By allowing students to attend private religious schools, some say, these laws use tax dollars to pay for religious indoctrination.

In Georgia, for example, enemies of that state’s law have worried that students will be sent to conservative schools.  At some schools, foes announce, students are forced to pray and banned from supporting homosexual rights.

Conservative supporters of the laws, such as the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, insist that these laws are the last best chance for low-income students. With tax-funded scholarships, low-income students will be able to escape failing public schools. The real issue, according to the Institute for Justice, is the “right of all . . . parents to send their children to the school of their choice.”

Historically, since the 1930s conservatives have agreed that public schools have been taken over by a grasping, out-of-touch academic elite. Any effort to weaken public schools and strengthen private ones has been seen by many conservatives as a win. As I argue in my upcoming book about twentieth-century educational conservatism, this notion has been both enormously influential and widely shared among very different sorts of conservatives.

Religious conservatives have insisted that secularizing “humanists” like John Dewey have taken over public education. Free-market conservatives have worried that the same power-drunk Keynesian economics that dominated public policy between 1930 and 1980 had turned public schools into intellectual cesspools. Patriotic conservatives fretted that sneaky subversion had become the public-school norm. And we can’t forget, of course, that white racial conservatives considered desegregated public schools to be worse than no schools at all.

This sort of tax-direction law is the most recent strategy conservatives have used to move students out of public schools. Will it work? We should all be riveted to the noises coming out the Alabama Supreme Court. Their decision could set a precedent other states will have to notice.