When our union was first formed, many states were affiliated with various Christian denominations. There was no separation of church and state. Contrary to current dogma, while Jefferson wrote about a separation of church and state, it has always been that the federal government could not advance or hinder religion, or choose between denominations.
At the state level, until the 20th century, the states had close ties to the churches. In 1875, after the passage of the 14th Amendment, President Ulysses S. Grant argued for a constitutional amendment that would fund free education but prohibit state funding of religious schools. Republican Representative James G. Blaine of Maine proposed the amendment and it failed by four votes in the Senate.
Grant’s support for the measure and Blaine’s advocacy for the measure was explicitly based on stopping the Catholic education of immigrants in the United States, especially the Irish. In the 19th century, instead of worrying about Hispanic immigrants, Americans worried about the Irish.
What is remarkable is that the debate over Blaine’s amendment made it clear that jurists and politicians at the time believed that government money could somehow go to sectarian schools. . Blaine’s amendment read: “No state shall make any law respecting the establishment of any religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no sum of money levied by taxation in any state for the support of public schools, or out of any public fund therefor, or public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect; neither the money thus collected nor the lands thus consecrated shall be divided between sects or religious denominations.
Having failed at the federal level, Blaine led his anti-Catholic campaign in the United States. All but 12 states passed versions of his amendment to ensure that Catholic schools could not receive any state benefits.
In the 20th century, riding the wave of anti-Catholic sentiment, federal courts began to assert that the federal government and the states should be explicitly anti-religious. The First Amendment actually states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of any religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Supreme Court took the position that this meant that any government funding given, in any way, to churches established a religion.
By tilting in this direction, the Court has created hostility to religion. It became legal dogma that government discrimination against religious people and religious institutions was not, in fact, discrimination. It became accepted that the government could give preferential treatment to the atheist who by faith believes that God does not exist, but could never give anything at all to those who by faith believe in God.
In the 21st century, the Supreme Court has finally corrected the imbalance. In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, Missouri offered grants to institutions that maintained playgrounds to resurface those playgrounds. Private school playgrounds could get grants, unless the private school was religious. The Supreme Court ruled that this was discrimination against religion. He singled out clerics for disparate treatment, not equal treatment.
In Shurtleff v. City of Boston, the City of Boston let private organizations fly flags over Boston City Hall. But when a Christian organization wanted to fly its flag, the city said no because it was religious. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that if Boston allowed an organization to fly a flag, which it did, it could not discriminate against religious organizations.
Now, in Carson v. Makin, the other day, the Supreme Court went a step further in correcting its anti-religious imbalance. In this case, Blaine’s home state of Maine reimbursed parents in rural Maine for the cost of private education if there were no public schools available within a reasonable distance. But Maine refused to reimburse parents who sent their children to sectarian schools. The Court again ruled that the government should not discriminate between secularists and sectarians.
Repudiating James Blaine’s anti-Catholic bigotry and anti-religious bigotry in American jurisprudence is timely and necessary. The government does not establish a religion. Instead, it now puts religious people on an equal footing with atheists in the town square.
Erick Erickson is an American conservative evangelical blogger and radio host. Find him on Twitter @EWErickson.