The Trinity Lutheran revolution

The SCOTUS decision on the president's travel ban is getting the most attention this week, but more consequential will be the decisive 7-2 opinion in the Trinity Lutheran case, overturning the so-called "Blaine amendment" in the Missouri state constitution.  Blaine provisions of the 1870s and 1880s were aimed at denying religious schools any form of government assistance, but they specifically allowed help for private secular schools.  (The help in question in this case was the relatively trivial matter of free playground rubber pellets, but the principle now applies across the board to many forms of assistance.)

Such blatantly discriminatory laws were targeted at the burgeoning parochial schools in the United States begun after the Civil War, owing to the efforts of the large number of Catholic immigrants at the time, often German, as well as German Lutherans in the Midwest, who were keen to have their children educated in the native tongue.

The Blaine movement was the cynical creation of Republican politician James G. Blaine to rally nativist and secularist support for his presidential hopes.  Blaine himself seems to have eventually had second thoughts about this, and President McKinley eventually returned the GOP to the much friendlier posture of the Lincoln era regarding immigrants and Catholics.  But the bad laws were left on the books, and we have had an 80-year battle in the Supreme Court since Everson to have religious schools treated fairly under the federal and state constitutions.  Well over half the states still have some sort of Blaine provision.

Parents and church leaders of every denomination have, of course, long seen the wisdom of allowing some public support for church-run schools, often the only viable alternative institution in violent inner cities.  And no one much objects these days to church-sponsored colleges benefiting from public programs to help students pay tuition.

Public unions and anti-religious activists have continued to support the nasty old Blaine amendments, the better to keep the gravy train flowing and the monopoly in public grade schools intact.

With Trinity Lutheran, however, I think the dam is going to burst.  In my home state, we just passed our first charter school law, but it had to contain prohibitions against religion, thanks to our state Blaine amendment.  That's gone now, and a great many churches, especially ones with unused facilities and members eager to make a difference in their communities, are going to be organizing charter schools on their campuses.

This could be the start of a Tocqueville-style reorientation of American life around our local schools and churches.  Tocqueville, you might remember, thought the success of churches in our early days was due, in no small measure, to the competition and free choice available.  For many places in America, such a similar free choice in schooling cannot come too soon.

Frank Friday is an attorney in Louisville, Ky.

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