As kids gear up to head back to school around the country, many Americans find themselves focused on education. In states with robust school choice programs, parents are able to choose the school that works best for their children and use the tax dollars allocated to their child to pay the tuition if they choose a private school. But outdated laws called Blaine Amendments are taking one important option out of the running.
When tax dollars help to fund charities and schools, they should go toward those that make the biggest impact. Unfortunately, not all institutions have the same access to government funds, regardless of whether or not they are the best organization for the job. In many states, that’s due to Blaine Amendments which make organizations ineligible – even when they’re doing great, effective work.
Blaine Amendments are provisions found in 37 state constitutions that prohibit public aid from going to religious institutions, including religious schools. They originated in the 1870s from anti-Catholic sentiment and pose legal barriers for many faith-based organizations seeking access to generally available public benefits. Repealing these amendments would open up more opportunities for religious charities and schools.
Many school voucher or scholarship programs that allow public money to pay for private education explicitly exclude religious schools. The Supreme Court has ruled multiple times that this violates First Amendment rights but states continue to use Blaine Amendments to do it anyway.
In two recent Supreme Court cases, the courts ruled in favor of protecting religious expression while still offering the same funding options to schools that were excluded from benefits by Blaine Amendments. In Maine, three moms sued the state because it refused funding for their kids to go to a religious school. In Montana, the Supreme Court reversed a state Supreme Court ruling that removed religious school options from a school voucher program.
Even with these rulings, Blaine Amendments still exist in the majority of American states – and states continue to use them to thwart free religious expression in schools and beyond.
Blaine Amendments also restrict religious social service providers or hospitals from participating equally in public programs. Faith-based charities may be unable to access public funding that secular organizations can receive. Removing Blaine Amendments would allow religious groups to compete for funding on the same terms to provide things like homeless shelters, food pantries or addiction treatment programs.
Blaine Amendments violate our First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause by singling out and excluding religious groups from neutral public aid programs. Recent Supreme Court cases, including Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, have ruled that denying religious organizations access to generally available public benefits is unconstitutional. Not only do Blaine Amendments keep great schools and strong charities away from people who would deeply benefit from them, they also go against the Constitution.
Overturning state Blaine Amendments is a necessary step in bringing policies in line with non-discriminatory First Amendment principles. Every school and charity deserves equal access and consideration when it comes to federal and state funding, regardless of religious affiliation. Excluding them only hurts the people who need them the most.