Last week, the Supreme Court decided one of its most important religious liberty cases in years. In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Court consigned anti-religion laws known as Blaine Amendments to the ash-heap of history. What’s more, it said that laws targeting religious people—of any sort—are illegal. That is good news for all Americans, religious and not.
Understanding why the case was so important requires a little history. You may remember from your high-school history textbook the political rhyme “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the State of Maine.” But if you are like most people, you have no idea who Sen. Blaine was or why he was in your textbook. Blaine was a towering figure in 19th Century American politics—Speaker of the House, Senator, and nominee for President.
But he was also one of the most sinister characters in United States history. Blaine led a popular movement to suppress private Catholic schools by amending the United States Constitution. Had he succeeded, he would have put American Catholics and other religious groups into a permanent second-class status. As the ultimate author of the Blaine Amendments found in 37 state constitutions, Blaine was responsible for the exclusion of religious groups from participation in government programs for more than a century.
The Blaine Amendments specifically targeted Catholics, but Jews, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Latter-day Saints, Baptists, and many other religious groups were caught in the crossfire. But the Blaine Amendments didn’t just deprive religious schools of the ability to participate in government programs. They also hobbled prisoner reentry programs, historic preservation programs, and a host of other social service programs where it would be completely natural for church groups and government to work together to solve social problems.
All that ended last week. After 145 years, the Supreme Court finally put an end to Blaine’s legacy of bigotry by holding that Blaine Amendments could not be used to single out religious people anymore. The Espinoza case was brought by low-income mothers who relied on a Montana state tax-credit scholarship program that helps underprivileged students attend private schools in Montana, including religious schools. The Montana Supreme Court had struck down the entire scholarship program—depriving students at both secular and religious private schools—because it violated Montana’s Blaine Amendment. In the Montana Supreme Court’s view, government scholarships that help kids attend parochial school constitute “aid” to a “sectarian” organization and are thus illegal.
The Supreme Court rejected this anti-religion ruling—and Blaine Amendments more generally—by pointing out the Amendments’ bigoted history and ruling that discrimination against anyone based on religious status is unconstitutional.
So what happens next? Legislatures in many states will now feel free to partner with religious organizations to help solve social problems. Most obviously, the end of Blaine Amendments removes one of the main hurdles to school choice programs that allow families to find the school that’s right for them. But the effects of the Court’s ruling are far broader than that. Espinoza allows government and religious organizations to work together across a host of different social service arenas, including homeless shelters, foster care and adoption, food pantries, medical clinics, prison reentry, and in every other area of life where religious groups are already at the forefront of helping those in need.
The decision leaves open significant questions, too. What happens when a government targets a religious practice rather than religious status? And what about religious people who need accommodations from their employers, like Orthodox Jews who cannot work on their Sabbath? Espinoza does not answer those questions, but cases headed quickly towards the Supreme Court will.
Right now, however, is a time to pause and celebrate the long-awaited end to one of the worst episodes in American history. The Blaine Amendments are dead—long live religious freedom.
Eric Rassbach is VP & senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty