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The Learning Curve

By Travis R. Kavulla

In the press, it’s a battle cast as the ever-present clash between one individual’s free exercise of religion, guaranteed by the First Amendment, and the separation of church and state. Last week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Locke v. Davey to decide whether the State of Washington violated the federal constitution by upholding its own. On its face, the case pertains to a scholarship meant for low-income students that then-undergraduate Joshua D. Davey (now a first-year student at Harvard Law School) received to help fund his undergraduate education. Planning on a career as a clergyman, he decided to major in Pastoral Ministries, but soon after he matriculated, the state government revoked his scholarship, citing language in the state constitution which, unlike the federal constitution, explicitly bars any state funding to sectarian institutions. Yet what now is being debated, depicted on one side by Solicitor General Ted Olson as “the plainest form of religious discrimination,” is merely a reincarnation of an unarguably discriminatory time in America’s history.

Beginning in the 1870s, on the heels of massive immigration of Irish and German Catholics to America, groups like the Order of United Americans, a jingoistic association that more or less constituted the political wing of the Freemasons, organized to oppose the integration of the new immigrants into society. Efforts to deny them franchise and educational benefits were undertaken in state legislatures. Some of their efforts were hardly subtle. Eminent cartoonist Thomas Nast drew a rather frank editorial cartoon, entitled “The American River Ganges,” published in May 8, 1875 in Harper’s Magazine. Cast in the distance of Nast’s drawing, St. Peter’s Basilica is a gilded structure across the river from which alligators (decked out in priestly collars) approach the shores of America. There, a crumbling public school, with an upside-down American flag, is depicted. The shore is lined with schoolchildren, who have been dropped off the side of a cliff by menacing Irishmen.

In that era, public schooling was routinely denied to the Catholic children living in urban America. But as Protestant families began to flock out of the city, leaving the neighborhoods to the Catholic immigrants, so too they left the political establishment to aspirant Catholics. New anti-immigrant political parties like the Know Nothings, spouting about “the Yellow Peril” and the incline of “papism,” blocked appropriations in state legislatures for new public schools in the Catholic-dominated areas. The few public schools still operating often refused to allow Catholics through the doors, nervous the “papism” of students—and their sheer numbers—would reduce educational quality for the other pupils. Desperate, Catholic city councils (like Boston’s) gave whatever support they could to Jesuit private schools to allow at least some of the children to attend institutions that functioned essentially as public schools.

Paranoid over the second-wave of Catholics promised by Know Nothings, the Speaker of the House and presidential candidate James G. Blaine led the charge for a constitutional amendment. While it failed narrowly on the federal level, 37 states enacted what are now known as Blaine Amendments, spare clauses which ban any monetary or land appropriation by any government entity to institutions deemed “sectarian”—a term then used by the Know Nothings as a code word for Catholics. While a new meaning, which is applied broadly to all religious schools, has supplanted the historical one, herein lies the connection between the Catholics of the 1800s and their socioeconomic successors one hundred years later.

The same type of public schools that barred Catholics’ entry or went unfunded when Catholics were admitted have merely collapsed under the weight of today’s urban poor— which are disproportionately ethnic minorities. In their stead, more successful charter schools have been established and, more significantly, voucher programs have been proposed and in some places, established. And even while the Supreme Court declared last year that voucher programs did not violate the U.S. Constitution, the racist-inspired Blaine amendments of many state constitutions are now being wielded against the voucher programs of today.

In a particularly twisted irony, interest groups like the National Education Association (the largest teacher’s union in America) and the so-called American Civil Liberties Union have supplanted the Know Nothings and Freemasons as the vanguards of the Blaine amendments. And many congressional representatives who have the luxury of sending their kids to St. Paul’s, Phillips Exeter, and St. Alban’s have been instrumental in legislative victories against voucher programs—most aptly demonstrated in the Senate’s expected refusal to approve a pilot voucher program for Washington, D.C., where the mayor and head of the school board (leftist Democrats themselves) have said it is badly needed. Beyond the city councils and school boards, where voucher programs should be debated, outside interest groups have ignored the downtrodden and taken the issue of D.C. vouchers to the federal government—and to court, in other instances, using the language of a racist and regrettable era.

Although the banner of secularism is different from the anti-Catholic cry of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the church-state separationists of today share a battle cry with the Know Nothings against “pervasively sectarian” (in the language of at least a few Blaine amendments) institutions. Although the Supreme Court, in a 2000 ruling (Mitchell v. Helms), has found that the term has “a shameful pedigree” within American history, the Blaine language’s usage today—to block judicially and on a state level a multitude of programs made to benefit the urban poor—has disturbing parallels with America’s nativist past.

Travis R. Kavulla ’06 is a history concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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