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The Theology of the Blaine Amendments


Richard W. Garnett


Notre Dame Law School


First Amendment Law Review, Vol. 1

Abstract:     
The Supreme Court affirmed, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, that the Constitution permits us to experiment with school-choice programs and, in particular, with programs that include religious schools. However, the constitutions of nearly forty States contain provisions - generically called "Blaine Amendments" - that speak more directly and, in many cases, more restrictively, than does the First Amendment to the flow of once-public funds to religious schools. This Article is a series of reflections, prompted by the Blaine Amendments, on education, citizenship, political liberalism, and religious freedom.

First, the Article considers what might be called the "federalism defense" of the provisions. It concludes that even full-throated support for the Rehnquist Court's so-called federalism "revival" does not require one to regard the Blaine Amendments as courageous efforts by particular communities to provide greater protection to religious freedom, by insisting on a sharper, and more rigid, "separation of church and state." In fact, these provisions might better be seen as representing the failures of particular communities fully to appreciate the nature and implications of religious freedom and liberal pluralism.

Second, the Article sounds a cautionary note concerning the fact that the Blaine Amendments were in large part the product of widespread concern about the political and cultural effects of Roman Catholicism. While it is true that the Blaine Amendments - like much else in the American experience - were anti-Catholic, they are best understood as reflecting more than mere "bigotry." Rather, the Blaine Amendments can usefully be situated in the context of the rich and growing scholarly literature on "civic education," and on the challenges posed by religious faith, teachings, and communities to certain conceptions of political liberalism. Although we are at present confronting the Blaine Amendments primarily as constraints imposed by positive law on local policy choices about school funding, these provisions take us to the heart of perennial questions about statecraft, and soulcraft. They represent, among other things, the enactment into law of certain claims about the aims of education, the prerogatives of the liberal state, the proper scope of religious obligation, and even the nature and end of the human person.

Finally, the Article proposes that Blaine Amendments might most profitably be engaged not simply as rules of positive law, but as theological arguments. The point of this observation is not to assert that the Blaine Amendments' religious meaning is a constitutional strike against them, but rather to enrich our conversations about them. After all, if the Blaine Amendments are not merely legal constraints on state legislatures' funding options, but also claims about the content and proper sphere of religious beliefs, obligations, and loyalties, then it would seem perfectly appropriate to raise constructive, yet unapologetic and unbracketed, religious counter-claims about these matters in response.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 46

Keywords: Religion Clauses, Blaine Amendments, civic education, anti-Catholicism, school choice, vouchers, federalism

JEL Classification: I2, K19

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Date posted: December 9, 2003  

Suggested Citation

Garnett, Richard W., The Theology of the Blaine Amendments. First Amendment Law Review, Vol. 1. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=455220 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.455220

Contact Information

Richard W. Garnett (Contact Author)
Notre Dame Law School ( email )
Room 327
P.O. Box 780
Notre Dame, IN 46556-0780
United States
574-631-6981 (Phone)
574-631-4197 (Fax)
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