By Cary McMullen
Several ill-advised proposals to amend the state constitution are on the ballot next week, and one of them would do away with Florida’s so-called Blaine Amendment that forbids state money from being used for “sectarian” purposes.
“Sectarian” refers among other things to religious matters, and this proposal, Amendment 8, taps into a complicated history.
In the late 1800s, Catholic immigrants protested the practices in public schools, which reflected the prevailing Protestant ethos of the country and frequently included prayers and exhortations that had an unabashed Protestant character.
So Catholics started their own school systems, and they complained that because the alternative was forcing their children to endure Protestant indoctrination paid for by tax dollars, Catholics were entitled to public money to pay for schools that supported their own faith.
In 1875, James G. Blaine, Speaker of the U.S. House, proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would have made it clear that no public money should ever be given to religious or religiously sponsored organizations. Blaine was not anti-Catholic himself, but there was strong sentiment against public funds going to Catholic schools.
Even though the amendment failed, states were quick to pick up the effort, and eventually 37 state constitutions, including Florida’s, had Blaine Amendments.
Supporters of Amendment 8 have tried to spin it different ways: that it eliminates a vestige of bigotry against Catholics; that because religious organizations cannot bid for state money they are being treated unfairly, and so on. They have also tried to say it has nothing to do with funding private religious education through vouchers, which is very hard to believe.
Times have changed, and today it is evangelicals complaining about their kids being indoctrinated with secular ideologies in public school. They’ve teamed up with Catholics, whose position has never changed, and they are salivating at the prospect of tapping state coffers to pay for students’ tuition at religious schools.
After all, private education is expensive and a voucher for the per-pupil amount the local public school would get makes St. Perpetua Catholic School or Triumph Christian Academy a lot more attractive to the parents of prospective students.
In theory, the U.S. Constitution forbids this under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that vouchers may be permissible under some circumstances. The ironclad language of the Blaine Amendment is standing in the way of Florida private school administrators, and Amendment 8 is their weapon to smash that barrier.
Contrary to the convictions of militant atheists and the ACLU, there are certain circumstances in which a partnership between the state and religious institutions is a good thing and ought to be encouraged. Where a denominational organization provides social services, they should be able to do so under contract with a modicum of guidelines about proselytizing.
But education is a very different kettle of fish. Religious groups have no rights to public money when it comes to funding private schools, precisely because religious indoctrination is part and parcel of the mission of those schools, and taxpayers should not have to pay for that.
Religious groups can complain all they want that they are being discriminated against, but one U.S. Supreme Court ruling to the contrary, there is a long legal and cultural tradition against mingling public monies with private religious education. What they call discrimination is in fact only being compelled to obey that tradition.
Some religious organizations that might otherwise legitimately be able to contract with the state are shut out under the Blaine Amendment, and that’s too bad. But if that’s the price to pay to keep religious schools’ hands out of the state till, so be it.
Cary McMullen is a journalist and editor who lives in Lakeland. He can be reached by email here.