Will James Blaine’s Black Knight Live to Bite Again?

One of the most fundamental goals of the modern religious liberty movement can be summed up in two words—legal equality. The government should grant religious organizations, individuals, and programs the same rights and privileges it grants to their secular counterparts. The most fundamental goal of a late 19th-century American politician named James Blaine was religious discrimination. 

He capitalized on a wave of post-Civil War anti-Catholic fervor and proposed a now-infamous federal constitutional amendment that would have banned public funding for so-called “sectarian” institutions. His original proposed alteration to the First Amendment read: 

No state shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any state for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect, nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.

This language reads quite differently to modern eyes. Now, the phrase “religious sect” stands in for religious movements more broadly. Then, to put it bluntly, the phrase meant “the Catholic church.” Moreover, neither did the amendment truly mean cutting off public funding from religious expression. No, at that time in American history public institutions were often in the business of religious expression. 

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