A New Low At The White House Summit

President Bush Urges Repeal Of State Constitutional Provisions Barring Aid To Religious Schools

President George W. Bush has some advice for state legislators: If your state constitution has provisions barring taxpayer support of religious schools and other ministries, they ought to be removed.

In an April 24 appeal at the White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools in Washington, D.C., Bush urged state lawmakers to join his drive to support religious schools.

“State and local governments can help,” he said. “Today, more than 30 state constitutions include so-called Blaine amendments, which prohibit public support of religious schools.

“These amendments,” Bush charged, “have their roots in 19th-century anti-Catholic bigotry – and today the legacy of discrimination continues to harm low-income students of many faiths and many backgrounds. And so state lawmakers, if they’re concerned about quality education for children, and if they’re concerned about these schools closing, they ought to remove the Blaine amendments.”

Bush’s proposal shouldn’t be surprising. Throughout his administration, the president has advocated for tax aid to “faith-based” schools and other social services. But the attack on state constitutional provisions barring aid to religion seems to be a first for him.

The White House summit was, of course, a sympathetic audience. Populated largely with advocates of religious and other private schools, the crowd burst into applause at Bush’s remarks.

Bush also drew cheers when he lamented the decline in the number of religious schools in the nation’s urban areas and promised to work for additional federal support for religious education. He touted his “Pell Grants for Kids” that would appropriate $300 million for tuition vouchers for 75,000 low-income students now attending “troubled” public schools.

“To me,” he said, “this is a good way to help strengthen the [private] schools that I was talking about that are losing. I mean, one way to make sure you don’t lose schools is you have people that are able to afford the education – sustain the cash flow of these valuable American assets.”

Bush’s proposal faces tough sledding in a Congress where the leadership is largely unfriendly to voucher subsidies for private schools. But his endorsement of repeal of state no-aid provisions is in a different political position.

Bush’s brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is leading a crusade in the Sunshine State to do just what the president recommended. Two amendments are on the November ballot there that would repeal strict church-state separation provisions and reduce constitutional commitment to a high-quality public school system. (See “Storm Clouds Over The Sunshine State”)

If those amendments pass, other states with similar provisions are likely to face similar challenges.

Bush counted 30 states with “Blaine amendments”; some scholars say 38 states – three-fourths of the total – should be on the list. They are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mich&gan;, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Scholars take issue with Bush’s indictment of all of the no-aid provisions as rooted in anti-Catholic bigotry.

Steven K. Green, a professor at Willamette University College of Law, has studied the issue and finds this assessment much too simplistic.

Anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment played a role in the enactment of some state constitutional provisions, Green argues, but in many states the driving political sentiment for no-aid provisions was support for “common” schools and the historic principle of church-state separation.

In the earliest American battles over government support for “sectarian” schools, he says, Baptist and other Protestant schools – not Catholic schools – were at issue.

“There is little evidence,” said Green, who is working on a book on this topic, “that anti-Catholicism or disdain for Catholic schooling played a significant role in the development of the no-funding principle or in the enactment of many no-funding provisions prior to the Civil War.”

The no-aid principle, Green added, is based on an early consensus that funding of religious institutions would violate the rights of conscience and lead to competition among various sects.