Can the government deny funding to a school to make its playgrounds safer, just because the school is religious? Should former convicts be denied help integrating back into society, just because the helping hand is religious?
No reasonable person would prevent someone in need from accessing available help just because that help comes from a faith-based organization. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening across the country, thanks to discriminatory state laws called Blaine Amendments, which prevent religious organizations from participating in widely available public programs on equal terms with all other organizations.
Named after Congressman James Blaine, Blaine Amendments were introduced over 100 years ago, when anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic bigotry were at an all-time high. Initially attempted as an unsuccessful amendment to the federal constitution and then spread to state constitutions, the amendments differed from state to state, but the purpose remained the same: to exclude Catholic influence from the predominantly Protestant public schools. These laws remain on the books in over half of the states, and they are now used to discriminate against any and all religions—not just Catholics. Because they originated in the context of a debate over education, many of them limit educational choices for children, including minority children, children in rural areas, and children with special needs. But their reach extends beyond schools—they have even been used to stop religious groups from helping prevent criminal recidivism.
The U.S. Supreme Court says that when the government forces an individual or organization to choose between its religious practice and a publicly available government benefit, it “punishe[s] the free exercise of religion.” That is just what Blaine Amendments continue to do—use laws intended to discriminate against Catholics to discriminate against all kind of religious Americans.
Becket is leading the fight to dismantle these discriminatory laws:
- Defending the right of learning-disabled students to attend religious schools through an Oklahoma state scholarship program in Kimery v. Broken Arrow Public Schools (2011) and Jenks v. Spry (2013).
- Protecting a Christian prison ministry in Florida from being shut down by an atheist group in Center for Inquiry v. Jones (2016).
- Giving underprivileged children equal access to a state-wide New Mexico textbook program in Moses v. Ruszkowski (2018).
Blaine Amendments at the Supreme Court:
- On January 22, 2019, the Supreme Court heard Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, in which the State of Montana refused to implement a tax credit scholarship program, arguing that Montana’s Blaine Amendment forbids tax credits for donations to scholarship-granting organizations if any of the scholarships are given to students attending religiously affiliated schools. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of low-income parents, arguing that organizations cannot be excluded based on religion from participating in widely available public programs.
- In 2016, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the state of Missouri couldn’t deny a school access to generally available grants for resurfacing playgrounds, simply because the school has a religious mission.
- In 2010, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, a case concerning an innovative system that allows Arizonans to create scholarship pools for students attending private schools. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that the program was constitutional even though many of the funds would go toward scholarships for students attending religious schools.
- In 2003, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Locke v. Davey, a case regarding the constitutionality of a policy forbidding students in Washington from using state-funded scholarships for degrees in devotional theology. Concluding that the Washington law in question was not a Blaine Amendment, the Court unfortunately ruled in favor of the state.
- In 1999, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Mitchell v. Helms, a case regarding the constitutionality of a federal aid program that benefitted both public and private schools. The Supreme Court ultimately reversed the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which had wrongly concluded that the program violated the Establishment Clause by including religiously affiliated private schools.
Other Blaine cases:
- Meredith v. Daniels (Indiana Supreme Court, 2013)
- Magee v. Boyd (Alabama Supreme Court, 2015)
- Oliver v. Hofmeister (Oklahoma Supreme Court, 2016)
- Lopez v. Schwartz, Duncan v. State of Nevada (Nevada Supreme Court, 2016)
- Center for Inquiry v. Jones (Florida, 2016).
- Douglas County School District v. Taxpayers for Public Education (Colorado Supreme Court, 2017)
- Gaddy v. Georgia Department of Revenue (Georgia Supreme Court, 2017)
- Moses v. Ruszkowski (New Mexico Supreme Court, 2018)