Julio Gonzalez, M.D., J.D.
In our prior installments of "Sunday Thoughts," we saw how the courts, through their use of the Fourteenth Amendment, positioned themselves to manipulate the nation's legal standing on religion and religious freedom, not only as applied to federal law and the federal government, but also to the states. The next stage in the assault on religious freedom involved inter-sect rivalries and a push to suppress Catholicism. And there was no better place to start than in the nation's public school system.
America's public schools, originally known as "common schools," were largely protestant institutions where prayer and hymn singing abounded. In these schools, the King James Bible was studied with fervor,[i] and The New England Primer, a schoolbook replete with religious sayings and bible passages, was the primary reading and writing source.
However, the rifts among the various sects of the 1600s and 1700s continued. With the increase of immigration by Southern European Catholics during the nineteenth century, hostility toward them grew. This was the time of the rise of the Know Nothing Party, which embraced, among other priorities, the goal of suppressing Catholics within the United States. To a large degree, their efforts were aimed at the common schools where they worked to ensure that the Protestant Bibles were read, and Protestant values were faithfully taught.
In response, Catholics, faced with increasing resistance at having their faith taught in the common schools, established their own, parallel school system and began seeking tax exemptions and public funding for their schools.[ii]
In 1875, when the Republicans, under President Ulysses S. Grant, found themselves needing to rally support for the presidential election, they resurrected anti-Catholic sentiment for their benefit. Former House Speaker, James Blaine, a Republican, ran against Grant for the party's nomination, and in an effort to win the support of the Know Nothing wing of the party, attacked Catholics by submitting an amendment to the Constitution designed to prevent the funding of Catholic schools. Blaine's proposed amendment was interesting in that it spoke directly to the states, just like the Fourteenth Amendment, enacting restrictions on how states employed money and lands in support of religious schools. Designed as an addition to the First Amendment, the Blaine Amendment read:
No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect; nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations. (Blaine Amendment, 1875)
As can be seen, the Blaine Amendment would not have prohibited religious education within the common school system. Instead, it would have prohibited public money or capital from being "under the control of any religious sect." Specifically, the amendment was crafted to allow funding of religious education in public schools where Protestantism was openly taught and to prohibit any government support of religious education outside of public schools where the teaching of Catholicism and other religious sects took place.
The amendment would pass in the House of Representatives, but after failing in the Senate, it was not ratified. Blaine also did not win the presidency. Although some states objected to the passage of his amendment because of its intrusive effects upon state sovereignty, similar amendments would pass throughout the established states and would become part of the constitutions of many of the newly admitted states.
But if anti-Catholicism fomented the genesis of prohibitions against government support for religious education, racism and bigotry expanded it. During Reconstruction, Republicans led the effort at expanding public education specifically in the hopes of educating freed blacks, and since school buildings were uncommon, children generally met in churches with church ministers as their public school teachers.[iii]
Predictably, Southern, white Democrats resisted the push towards public education, and as the members of the various Catholic communities became involved in educating freed blacks, the legislative war against Catholics became tangled up with the prejudicial war against blacks, giving the effort to discontinue support for religious education within particularly southern states the dual purpose of disadvantaging blacks as well as Catholics.
The conclusion to be drawn from these trends is that the concept of separation of church and state related to funding religious education did not result from some lofty aspirational concept by the national designers wanting to separate churches from the tarnish of politics, nor did it arise out of a concern over the potential of tyranny and oppression of one religious sect over another, nor even because of some intellectually contrived offense of teaching religion in front of non-believers. Rather, the case against religious education in public schools arose from a discriminatory assault to disadvantage Catholics and blacks even at the risk of negatively impacting the opportunity for religious education for all.
This battle cry based on racism and on the suppression of opportunity for minority students was later embraced by secularists and atheists alike to shut down the faithful and silence the pious.
Dr. Julio Gonzalez is an orthopaedic surgeon and lawyer living in Venice, Florida. He is the author of The Federalist Pagesand serves in the Florida House of Representatives. He can be reached through www.thefederalistpages.com to arrange a lecture or book signing.
The name "Know Nothing" derived from the agreement amongst the group's earliest members to answer, "I know nothing," when asked about their activities.
[i]Nathan A. Adams, IV, "Florida's Blaine Amendment: Goldilocks and the Separate Buy Equal Doctrine," St. Thomas Law Review, vol 24, no 1, 1-31 (2011).