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What Is a Blaine Amendment?

In the world of education and law, the Blaine Amendment plays a key role. This amendment is named after James G. Blaine, a 19th-century politician from Maine. The Blaine Amendment was aimed to prevent public funds from supporting religious schools. It sparked a debate over school choice and the separation of church and state. It also sparked discussions over how public money (taxpayers' money) should be used for education.

This article explores the Blaine Amendment, its history, and its impact on today's educational landscape. It focuses on issues like public funding for religious schools and school vouchers. See FindLaw's School Funding section for more articles.

A Brief History of the Blaine Amendment

In 1875, Congressman James G. Blaine proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This followed a speech the year before by President Ulysses S. Grant that strongly encouraged the idea. Congressman Blaine proposed a constitutional amendment known as the Blaine Amendment. The amendment aimed to stop public money from funding religious schools, especially Catholic ones. It was a time of anti-Catholic bigotry. This ideology was driven by the growing number of Catholic immigrants entering the states.

Had it been enacted, Blaine's amendment would be part of the federal constitution. It would have prohibited state governments from establishing an official religion. It would also prevent states from allowing public money to fund religious institutions.

Because it was an attempt to change the U.S. Constitution, the 1875 amendment would have applied to every U.S. state. Yet, the act did not make it out of Congress. Blaine's proposal passed in the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate.

State Blaine Amendments

Many states adopted state constitutional provisions, known as state Blaine Amendments. These amendments reflected the era's tension. There was tension between Protestant-majority public schools and the emerging Catholic schools. These state legislatures accomplished what the federal Blaine Amendment could not.

Despite the amendment's failure to pass, nearly 40 states have since amended their constitutions. These amendments prohibit state funding for religion-affiliated schools. Note that a Blaine Amendment can also refer to something else. It can refer to a state's constitutional prohibition against religious school funding.

State Blaine Amendment provisions are similar in language and scope to the 1875 federal amendment. For example, California's constitution prohibits its state and local governments from funding certain schools. This includes schools "controlled by any religious creed." Similarly, Texas' constitution prohibits public money from being used "for the benefit" of any sect or religion.

Is Public Funding for Religious Schools Constitutional?

The U.S. Constitution's First Amendment plays a crucial role in this debate. The establishment clause of the First Amendment is key. This clause prevents the government from establishing a religion. The free exercise clause of the First Amendment is also important. This provision ensures religious freedom in schools.

The Blaine Amendment and similar state laws raise many questions. Does supporting religious schools with public money violate the U.S. Constitution? Or does prohibiting such funding restrict religious freedom? These questions have led to significant Supreme Court decisions. These decisions have shaped the interpretation of religious liberty and public education.

Criticism and Opposition: Key Relevant Cases

Some argue that state prohibitions against funding for religious schools may seem fair and sensible. But, they charge that the result is harmful to students. They also claim that it may even constitute a form of discrimination toward students.

These critics believe that the funding prohibitions limit the ability of parents to decide what's best for their children. For example, a state's Blaine Amendment could prohibit a parent from using a state-issued voucher to pay tuition if the school is religiously affiliated. This could be prohibited even if that school is academically strong and otherwise suitable for the child.

Several U.S. Supreme Court cases have tested the limits of the Blaine Amendment and state versions. In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), the majority opinion upheld a school voucher program. It allowed public funds to support private religious schools indirectly through this voucher program.

Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (2020) further challenged the state Blaine Amendments. The court ruled that excluding religious schools from a scholarship program was unconstitutional. The court held that the exclusion violated the free exercise clause.

In Locke v. Davey (2004), however, the court came to a different result. The court held states could deny scholarship funds to students studying devotional theology. These decisions show the complexity of balancing religious freedom and public education funding.

Do All States Have Blaine Amendments?

No. Not all states have Blaine Amendments in their constitutions. States without these provisions may have more flexibility in passing laws that fund religious schools. The absence of a Blaine Amendment means states can explore different school choice programs that fund religious entities. These programs may include voucher systems or tax credits. They can do so without the immediate concern of constitutional violations. The differences among state laws reflect the ongoing debate over this topic.

Blaine Amendment and School Vouchers

More states are considering issuing vouchers for parents to pay private school tuition. This may become more common. As a result, funding for religious schools may become more hotly debated. As a precursor, consider the state of Florida.

Florida voters rejected a constitutional repeal of its Blaine Amendment in 2012. The rejected measure attempted to overcome a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision. In the 2006 case, the court held the state's voucher program was unconstitutional. The program allowed parents to use state-issued vouchers to pay private religious school tuition.

The legal tension between these important interests will continue to be a source of debate and new legislation. It will be increasingly important as states decide whether to repeal their Blaine Amendments.

How an Attorney Can Help

Navigating the complexities of education law, especially regarding funding and religious schools, can be challenging. Parents, educators, and school administrators often seek legal assistance to understand their rights and obligations under federal and state laws. An attorney can help you to understand your state's constitution and how laws affect issues such as school choice and vouchers.

If you have questions about your state's Blaine Amendment or about education laws in general, you can consult with an experienced attorney through FindLaw.

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