New Hampshire’s constitution has an amendment which mandates that “no money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of the schools or institutions of any religious sect or denomination.”

On the surface, this looks like an affirmation of the First Amendment principle that the government shouldn’t fund religion. However, its history shows its roots in religious bigotry, and and the courts’ interpretation of it has stood in the way of school choice.

Amendments like this are found in many state constitutions. They’re collectively known as “Blaine Amendments,” after James G. Blaine, a prominent 19th-century politician. New Hampshire added its version to the constitution in 1877.

Targeting Catholic schools

It was anything but the affirmation of religious neutrality which it might look like today. It arose in a time when the public schools taught Protestantism and Catholics (many of them immigrants or their children) wants to keep their children free of Protestant teaching. An extensive network of Catholic schools developed, and their supporters looked for government funding.

The Pew Research Center explains: “In the 19th century, Protestants and Catholics frequently fought over Bible reading and prayer in public schools. The disputes then were over which Bible and which prayers were appropriate to use in the classroom. Some Catholics were troubled that the schools’ reading materials included the King James version of the Bible, which was favored by Protestants. In 1844, fighting broke out between Protestants and Catholics in Philadelphia; a number of people died in the violence and several Catholic churches were burned.”

Here in New Hampshire, anti-Catholic bias pervaded the legal system. Our original state constitution included a blatant violation of religious neutrality, authorizing the legislature “to authorize from time to time, the several towns, parishes, bodies corporate, or religious societies within this state, to make adequate provision at their own expence, for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality.” This provision wasn’t removed till 1968, and even then tens of thousands voted against its repeal. At the 1876 Constitutional Convention, a delegate from Holderness openly expressed fears that the Catholics were going to take over and “persecute to the death all who opposed them.”

The purpose of New Hampshire’s Blaine Amendment was to secure the continued dominance of Protestantism in the schools. As such, it’s plainly unconstitutional. It allows state funding for private schools, but only if they don’t teach religion. Doing that would plainly violate the United States’ First Amendment, so it has been interpreted as banning funding for any non-governmental schools.

This wouldn’t be so bad in itself. The government shouldn’t be in the business of subsidizing private schools. Unfortunately, the courts have interpreted the amendment very broadly. They’ve taken “granted or applied for the use of the schools” to mean that tax money can’t even be returned to taxpayers to apply it to an alternative to the government’s schools.

Fear of difference

Overt attempts to suppress less-favored religions have mostly faded into the shadows, though they aren’t gone. Sweden’s Social Democratic Party has proposed outlawing religious schools, and some think the real target is the country’s eleven Muslim schools. Certainly there are people in the US who would support a Muslim-targeted ban.

Today’s opponents of school choice aren’t religious bigots, but they’re more like the Blaine Amendment’s original supporters than they may think. They want the One True School to teach children in the One Right Way. Their concern isn’t with the well-being of the students but the well-being of the government’s schools.

The ACLU, which takes good positions on many issues but is terrible on school choice, expresses fear of difference, lamenting that “the majority of private schools are religious. That means the schools employ a wide variety of curricula, daily practices, and admission and hiring requirements not acceptable in public schools.”

Choosing from a wide variety is what freedom is all about. We can choose from a wide variety of books, websites, foods, and places to live. Competition forces them to be better. Competition makes schools better, too, according to a study at the University of Arkansas.

Then and now, support for the public school monopoly has been based on fear of the other, of the different. It’s time to shake this off and realize that socialist monopolies are as bad an idea in education as in anything else.

— Gary McGath