Written by Don Byrd

Education Secretary Betsy Devos gave an address earlier today to the Alfred E. Smith Foundation in which she decried state laws that forbid funding religion using taxpayer dollars. So-called Blaine Amendments bar government aid to religion as a central means of protecting the institutional separation of church and state. But according to Devos, these provisions must be removed so that religious schools can more readily access public funds.

From her prepared remarks

…Blaine provisions prohibit taxpayer funding of “sectarian”… activities, even when they serve the public good. Activities like addiction recovery, hospice care, or — the amendments’ primary target — parochial education.

These amendments are still on the books in 37 states. They were bigoted then, and they still are today.

These amendments should be assigned to the ash heap of history and this “last acceptable prejudice” should be stamped out once and for all.

Secretary Devos is just wrong about this. “No aid to religion” provisions are important and appropriate means of supporting religious liberty and protecting against state supported religion. The Baptist Joint Committee has consistently supported such laws against legal challenges and against the argument that they evince anti-Catholic bias. 

In a brief to the Colorado Supreme Court in a 2015 case involving a school voucher program, the BJC and other religious liberty advocates explained that states began implementing “no aid to religion” laws long before Rep. Blaine introduced a constitutional amendment, which was supported in part by those with an anti-Catholic bias. More importantly, the laws are an important way religious freedom is currently protected. The brief adds:

It is not now, nor has it ever been, antireligious to say that decisions about the religious education and spiritual life of children should be left to their families and houses of worship, without either governmental support or intrusion.

Secretary Devos’ interest in expanding school voucher programs nationwide is well known. She should not undermine key state laws, or impugn them as bigoted, to further her goal. 

For more on this issue, see Holly Hollman’s 2014 column explaining the BJC’s brief in the Colorado case.