The Anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments Must Go

The Anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments Must Go
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On Wednesday, April 19, the Supreme Court—fully seated with nine Justices including Justice Gorsuch—will hear oral argument in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley. With twenty-seven groups filing in support of Trinity Lutheran and six filing in support of the Pauley, the Director of Missouri's Department of Natural Resources, this case is widely considered the most significant of the term. At issue is whether the First Amendment allows states to deny grants simply because the applicant is affiliated with a church.

The fight takes place at the most unexpected locations: a preschool playground. Anyone with kids knows how horrible it is to cut short a great romp around the jungle gym due to a skinned knee, chin, elbow, etc. Those nice, cushiony playgrounds are a whole lot more agreeable for kids and parents than the pea gravel playgrounds most of us grew up around. The state of Missouri knows this too and set up a program awarding grants to nonprofit organizations to purchase playground surfacing materials made from recycled tires. Its "Scrap Tire Grant Program," in addition to being good for the environment, promotes the safety of children at play. 

Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri operates a daycare with a playground used by students and neighbors after the school day is over. In 2012, they learned of the Scrap Tire program and applied for a grant to replace the gravel and grass surface of their outdoor playground with the much safer rubber surface. Missouri ranks the applications it receives for Scrap Tire grants because it only awards a certain number of grants per year. In the year that Trinity Lutheran applied for a grant, fourteen applicants received awards. Despite ranking fifth out of forty-four applicants, Missouri denied Trinity Lutheran the grant funds. The state pointed to Article I, § 7, of the Missouri Constitution which prohibits government aid to churches. Trinity Lutheran brought suit claiming that this violates the U.S. Constitution. While the lower courts rejected Trinity Lutheran's claims, the Supreme Court has the chance to set things straight. 

A bit of historical context is helpful to understand the Missouri constitutional provision at issue. Opposition to aid to "sectarian" schools was at its height in the 1870's. "Sectarian" in this context was code for "Catholic" and reflected a general hostility to the Catholic Church and to Catholics in general. Congress at that time considered, but failed to pass, an amendment to the Constitution that would have forbidden direct government aid to educational institutions with a religious affiliation.  The amendment had been presented by then-Congressman James G. Blaine. After the failed attempt to alter the U.S. Constitution, supporters of the proposal turned their attention to state legislatures.  Thirty-seven of the fifty states acted and have some sort of constitutional provisions prohibiting state aid to religious institutions. These provisions are commonly called "state Blaine Amendments." They are a stain on our heritage of religious freedom.

Trinity Lutheran claims that denying their application based solely on their religious affiliation violates the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom. Rather than respecting the free exercise of the faith of its residents, Missouri is punishing applicants by denying them a publicly available benefit if they happen to be affiliated with a church.

The Trinity Lutheran case is just one example of how the various state Blaine Amendments have impaired religious freedom. These clauses have been invoked to prohibit tuition assistance to school children under generally available state scholarships for study at private schools simply because the children wish to attend religiously affiliated schools. 

It is long past time the Supreme Court rejected the born-in-bigotry of the Blaine Amendments and recognized they are simply incompatible with our Constitution, our heritage, and our freedoms.

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