Separation Isn't Anti-catholic, Attorney Tells Civil Rights Panel

State constitutional provisions that bar tax funding of religion were not intended to promote anti-Catholicism, an attorney with a moderate Baptist group told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights June 1.

K. Hollyn Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, testified before the commission during a briefing on “school choice.”

The event focused on so-called “Blaine Amendments” found in more than half of the state constitutions. The amendments are often named for James G. Blaine, a U.S. senator during the latter half of the 19th century. In 1875, Blaine advocated adding an amendment to the U.S. Constitution explicitly stating that religious schools and institutions cannot receive public funding, a stance backed by President Ulysses S. Grant.

Blaine’s amendment failed, but some states adopted variants of it.

Americans United points out that the term “Blaine Amendment” is misleading, since many of the state provisions pre-date Blaine. During her testimony, Hollman noted that the amendments were adopted to further religious liberty by banning anything like a religion tax.

“I am familiar with arguments coming from those in the voucher movement seeking to eliminate religious liberty provisions that pose a legal barrier for the public funding of private religious purposes, such as the funding of religious schools,” she said. “Painting such provisions with a broad ‘anti-Catholic’ brush is a flawed tactic that betrays our country’s rich history of religious freedom.”

Hollman, who serves on Americans United’s Board of Trustees, said these sections should more accurately be termed “no-aid” provisions. Attempts to link them to the anti-Catholicism that was common in some states after the Civil War, Hollman asserted, “should be viewed with skepticism. Neither the history of these constitutional amendments, much less their effect, can accurately be captured by reference to one set of arguments made at a particular time in history.”

The Baptist attorney noted that opposition to tax support for religion goes back to the founding period.

“The principle that citizens should not be taxed to support religion harkens back to the fights for disestablishment in the states and the passage of the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom,” Hollman said. “Writings at the time of our country’s founding argue forcefully that government should not promote religion, nor interfere with its practice. These values are deeply rooted in our history and in our current legal standards.”

Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, also testified in favor of the no-aid amendments. Two pro-voucher witnesses offered critical testimony: Anthony R. Picarello Jr., general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and Dick Komer, senior litigation attorney of the Institute for Justice.