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Blaine paid a steep price for his bigotry, but children shouldn’t have to

Republican James G. Blaine (1830-1893) was a House speaker, senator and two-time secretary of state, but he is remembered, if at all, for this doggerel: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine/ the continental liar from the state of Maine.” His lasting legacy, however, is even more disreputable than his involvement in unsavory business deals while in elective office: the Blaine Amendments that have been in 37 state constitutions.

Soon, the Supreme Court will decide whether to hear an appeal from Montana’s high court. Accepting the Montana case will enable the Supreme Court to end the conflict among federal circuit courts of appeal and state courts of last resort.

In the 19th century’s second half, fear and loathing of Catholic immigrants were ubiquitous and forthright. In 1854, Massachusetts’ governor and all but three members of the Legislature were members of the anti-Catholic Know Nothing party, and the Legislature’s Nunnery Committee searched for underground dungeons in convents. Protestantism was effectively a semi-established religion, widely taught in public schools with hymn singing and readings from the King James Version of the Bible. And many states enacted constitutional provisions such as Montana’s, adopted in 1889 and readopted in the 1972 constitution: There shall be no “direct or indirect appropriation or payment” of public monies “for any sectarian purpose” or to aid any institution “controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.”

In 2015, in order “to provide parental and student choice in education” from grades K-12, Montana’s Legislature enacted legislation providing a small tax credit of up to $150 for individuals or businesses donating to private, nonprofit scholarship organizations that award scholarships for children to attend private schools, a program similar to those in 18 states. However, Montana’s Department of Revenue quickly issued a rule forbidding recipients from using their scholarships at religious schools. The department said this was required by the Blaine Amendment quoted above. Montana’s Supreme Court has upheld this rule, which cripples an organization called Big Sky Scholarships.

This organization formed to receive and distribute funding targeted exclusively to low-income families and children with disabilities. One of the petitioners seeking a U.S. Supreme Court hearing is Kendra Espinoza, an office assistant and single mother who took a second job, as a janitor, to help pay her two daughters’ tuition at a nondenominational — not a Catholic — school. Without a Big Sky scholarship, her daughters will likely have to leave their school. As might the adopted daughter (from China) of another petitioner, Jeri Anderson.