The Supreme Court’s recent ruling that Missouri wrongly used its constitution’s Blaine Amendment to deny a publicly funded grant to a church-run preschool won’t directly affect growing efforts to add Kentucky to the list of states offering private school-choice programs in the form of tuition assistance via tax credits.
Tax-credit proposals like ones introduced in the Kentucky legislature in recent years have a perfect record in courts because they involve using voluntary private donations to create scholarships giving families the means to provide children with the best education possible.
Vouchers are more controversial because they allow families access to tax dollars for private, often religious, education.
Still, the high court’s ruling in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer signals a distinct weakening of support nationwide for school-choice opponents who would deny families a voucher simply because they might use funds to send their children to a religious school.
Trinity Lutheran Preschool of Columbia, Missouri, was denied access to a state grant for nonprofits to take advantage of a program recycling old tires as new playground surfaces.
Show-Me jurists pointed to their state constitution’s “Blaine Amendment,” which includes a prohibition that “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.”
Kentucky’s constitution contains similar but even stronger language in Section 189: “No portion of any fund or tax now existing, or that may hereafter be raised or levied for educational purposes, shall be appropriated to, or used by, or in aid of, any church, sectarian or denominational school.”
Such language first found its way into state constitutions after Sen. James G. Blaine of Maine failed to get a similar federal constitutional amendment through Congress nearly 150 years ago.
On the surface, these amendments were billed as solidifying the wall of separation between church and state.
Underneath, however, anti-Catholic sentiments boiled over.
Catholics began seeking public funding for their own schools because they didn’t want to send their children to the public schools of that day because, while they were called “nondenominational,” really were Protestant-oriented schools – complete with hymn singing and King James Bible readings.
Powerful politicians would not hear of it.
Civil War hero and President Ulysses S. Grant gave a highly publicized speech urging Congress to adopt a constitutional amendment to prohibit funding of so-called “sectarian schools.”
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas more recently wrote for the majority in the Mitchell v. Helms decision in 2000 allowing religious schools access to federal loans that it was an “open secret” that “sectarian” in the language of Blaine was code for “Catholic.”
Ironically, the very amendment favored by Protestants long ago is now used against them by school-choice opponents who loathe religious institutions, especially private Christian schools.
Hiding behind the cloak of wanting to strengthen that separating wall, most school-choice enemies – led by teachers’ unions – insist they employ Blaine to protect minorities and individual rights.
Yet they continue to use this ancient amendment, which Thomas in the Mitchell ruling claimed was “born of bigotry,” to deny students living in the wrong zip code with two strikes already against them in life the opportunity to rise above “the soft bigotry of low expectations” – as one of Grant’s White House successors stated.
Kentucky’s policymakers and jurists must rise above primitive attempts to use Blaine as a weapon against giving families in this commonwealth the opportunity to provide their children the best education possible – regardless of the size of their paychecks or whether they choose a public, private or parochial school.
Trinity and other soon-to-be-decided rulings are opening the door for more school choice wider than it’s been in more than a century.
It’s time for Kentucky to step through it.
Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @bipps on Twitter.