On July 18, the Colorado Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a public briefing to examine the Blaine Amendment as a civil rights issue based on its discrimination against Catholics and freedom of school choice.
But the amendment is a nearly 150-year-old-law.
In 1875, a time when immigration was changing the face of the nation, the then-speaker of the House of Representatives, James Blaine, Republican U.S. Representative from Maine, proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
It may seem harmless on paper, but the intention behind the amendment — which passed in the House 180 to 7 and just missed passing in the Senate, only short by two votes — was to target Catholic schools and block them from government funding. While it didn’t pass federally, 38 states implemented this amendment.
Now known as the Blaine Amendment, the law states, “Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever.” Colorado Const. Art. IX, § 7.
“Sectarian”? Read: Catholic.
At the time that the amendment took effect, the country was faced with widespread immigration, especially from the Irish, who were predominantly Catholic.
This threatened the primarily Protestant Americans, who saw the Irish Catholics as anti-American as the immigrants began forming their own Catholic schools to avoid Protestant teaching.
According to writer Philip Hamburger in an article about the amendment, Blaine, who hoped to run for president, thought a good way to get votes would be to block these Catholic schools from government funding, calling them and any other religions that can’t partner with other religions in schools, “sectarian.”
In Douglas County, due to a Colorado Supreme Court ruling in 2015, students were blocked from receiving vouchers to attend private schools that met district criteria, which included some religious schools. Now due to the ruling, a clause was added to the state amendment, which bars “public moneys” from being given “in aid of any church or sectarian society.”
Jennifer Kraska, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, attended the public meeting on July 18 among some other 50 people, she said.
The members of the committee were “well-split for or against,” according to Kraska and presented 10-minute descriptions on why they supported or opposed the amendment.
Kraska, along with Helen Raleigh, a member of the committee who brought the issue forward, believe that the Blaine Amendment is indeed a civil rights issue that discriminates against Catholics, particularly in the choice of education.
“It’s definitely a civil rights issue, because it affects a lot of people and especially a lot of children, and it’s something that gets glossed over, because people don’t know what it is or understand it,” Kraska said. “[Overturning the amendment would be] providing a choice for families and children, and to deny children that ability in all types of education settings is wrong.”
Raleigh, a writer who discovered the Blaine Amendment’s history while doing research for her book on immigration, The Broken Welcome Mat, wrote in a column, “Many people today probably are unaware of the discriminating nature of the Blaine Amendments.”
But upon discovering it, she saw clearly what needed to be done: Bring it back into the public eye.
“I learned that this law is rooted in anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant bigotry and it still impacts Colorado families today,” Raleigh told Denver Catholic. “So I brought it up to the Colorado Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. The Committee voted to investigate.”
The next steps, Kraska said, are to accumulate public comment on the issue in order to eventually bring it to legislature.
“The next steps are to provide an option for legislative movement to provide educational choice programs — we’d have a thriving voucher program in Douglas county and we could see that in other districts,” Kraska said. “It opens the door to more choices for schools that the amendment deems as ‘sectarian’ or religious.”
According to Raleigh, the public has 30 days from the meeting (until Aug. 18) to send comments to the committee to oppose or support the amendment; after that, the committee will gather the comments and interview small groups impacted by the amendment. Finally, they will produce a report, published at the federal level.
Raleigh is hopeful that something can be done to overturn the amendment, and the first step is getting the public’s interest.
“We had three of the speakers recognize [that this is a problem]. It’s a 150-year-old bigotry law and really impacts low-income families,” Raleigh said.
Comments may be sent to 1961 Stout Street, Suite 13-201, Denver, CO 80294 until Aug. 18.