James G. Blaine
The continental liar from the state of Maine.
Burn this letter!
— Democratic campaign doggerel, 1884
Because of his grandiloquence, House Speaker Blaine was called “the Plumed Knight” by a man suggesting Blaine’s nomination at the Republicans’ 1876 convention. Despite Blaine’s participation in the fragrant politics of the Gilded Age, when railroads showed their gratitude to helpful legislators (hence Blaine’s instruction concerning an inconvenient letter), he eventually came close to being called “Mr. President.”
But in 1884, after he had been a senator and secretary of state and was at last his party’s nominee, a supporter, a prominent protestant minister, characterized Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion.” Catholics – waves of whom had been arriving for decades as immigrants, many settling in New York – voted their umbrage. Blaine lost New York, and hence the presidency (to New Yorker Grover Cleveland), by 1,047 votes out of more than a million cast.
On Tuesday, 127 years after his death, Blaine had another bad day. The U.S. Supreme Court held, 5-4, that a Montana policy based on the state constitution’s “Blaine Amendment” violates the U.S. Constitution.
In 2015, Montana’s legislature, seeking “to provide parental and student choice in education,” enacted a program similar to ones in 18 other states – a small (up to $150) tax credit for individuals and businesses donating to private, nonprofit organizations that dispense scholarships to help children attend private schools. Children like those of Kendra Espinoza, a single mother and office assistant, who took a second job, as a janitor, to enable her two daughters to attend a non-denominational (not Catholic) school. The Institute for Justice’s libertarian litigators supported her when she challenged Montana’s Department of Revenue ruling that scholarship recipients could not use their funds at the 70% of Montana private schools that are religious.
The department, validated by the state Supreme Court, said this prohibition was required by Montana’s constitutional stricture (adopted in 1884, readopted in 1972, and similar to 36 other states’ provisions) that no “direct or indirect” public monies shall be spent “for any sectarian purpose” or to support any institution “controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.” Such “Blaine amendments” – so named because of his pandering to anti-Catholic (a subset of anti-immigrant) sentiment – were widely adopted, and for a while were required by Congress for the constitutions of new states entering the union. Protestants resented the impertinence of Catholics who founded schools that taught their faith as forthrightly as public schools (“nurseries of piety,” said many 19th century educators) then taught Protestantism via the King James Version of the Bible.
On Tuesday, Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by the other conservatives (Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh), held that Montana had violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion: “A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” Social conservatives might suspend, for a moment, their despair that Roberts and Gorsuch have defected to the Dark Side.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined in dissent by Elena Kagan (Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor also dissented), said that Montana did not make the decision that Roberts said it made. Because Montana’s Supreme Court had struck down the entire scholarship program, all private-school parents were “in the same boat,” so the U.S. Supreme Court “had no occasion to address the matter.”
Perhaps, but Roberts’s language will splendidly annoy the annoying teachers unions, which oppose choice programs that dilute the public-school monopoly: Roberts said that parents have a constitutionally protected right to direct their children’s “religious upbringing” by sending their children to religious schools.
The court has split many hairs about tangential contacts between government and religious schools. When it held that government can fund religious schools’ textbooks but not maps, a bemused Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1978 wondered: What about atlases, which are books of maps? The good news, especially today, is: Fevers – those of cranky secularists as well as anti-Catholic bigots – burn out.
Blaine exploited a longstanding prejudice. As early as 1855, Massachusetts’s governor, the entire state Senate and all but three members of the state House were members of the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party, and the legislature’s Nunnery Committee searched for underground dungeons in convents. Today, Blaine’s portrait hangs in the U.S. Capitol’s Speaker’s Lobby, unmolested by the cancel culture’s enforcers, who probably admire his truculent spirit.