Georgia’s Blaine Amendment Threatens Scholarship Benefitting Low-Income Catholic Students

A scholarship program that benefits low-income students in Georgia who seek to attend Catholic and other private schools is now in jeopardy because of a bigoted 19th century, anti-Catholic provision in the state’s constitution that has yet to be repealed.

Opponents of Georgia’s GOAL Scholarship Program are using the state’s discriminatory Blaine Amendment to challenge the legality of the school choice measure which has awarded 25,448 scholarships totaling $93.5 million to 11,230 low-income students since its inception in 2008.

According to Georgia’s constitution, “No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, cult, or religious denomination or of any sectarian institution.”

A number of Catholic schools are among the 133 private schools that participate in GOAL program. The program is funded by Georgia taxpayers who voluntarily make tax-deductible contributions. Because the scholarships could be used to pay for tuition at religious schools, disgruntled taxpayers want the entire program shut down. A lower court dismissed the case in 2016, but it was appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.

“Georgia’s program is helping low-income children. It would be a terrible mistake to use a bigoted law from the nineteenth century to hurt schoolchildren today,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket Law, in a December 22 statement. Becket Law filed an amicus curiae brief that “urged the Georgia Supreme Court to protect the children and the religious schools they attend from discrimination.”

Blaine Amendments, named for former Speaker of the House and U.S. Secretary of State James G. Blaine, are provisions that are still found in almost every state constitution prohibiting the use of taxpayer funds at “sectarian” schools. After Blaine’s failed attempt to amend the U.S. Constitution with the proposal in 1875, versions of the amendment were “added to state constitutions in order to enforce the nativist bigotry of the day” against Catholics, according to Becket Law.

Becket Law argued in its brief that Georgia’s Blaine Amendment violates the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“The basic history of Blaine Amendments and their basis in anti-Catholic bigotry is largely undisputed,” the authors of the brief explained. “‘No aid’ provisions like Georgia’s article 1, section 2, paragraph VII used the term ‘sectarian’ to exclude certain organizations from government funding and … target some faiths for special disfavor,” thereby violating the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment.

The Cardinal Newman Society has previously reported on challenges to Blaine Amendments in Montana, Colorado, Nevada and Missouri. The Missouri case is set to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Patrick Reilly, president of the Newman Society, gave an interview on EWTN in 2015  in which he decried the anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments for their use in threatening religious freedom and school choice by blocking funds to families who want to send their children to religious schools.

Reilly said it’s “extremely important” for supporters of faithful Catholic education to focus on repealing the Blaine Amendments now, “especially with the push for school choice, and certainly with the secularization in the country.”

Blaine Amendments are a constant reminder of the rampant anti-Catholic bigotry that was once the norm in American society. At present, they are still being used to harm Catholic education, and proponents of Blaine Amendments have expanded their discriminatory purpose to target supporters of other faith-based schools as well. It’s long past time for political leaders to remove these black marks on their states’ constitutions and history.

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