Repealing or ignoring the last remaining vestige of bigotry contained in the New York State Constitution, the so-called “Blaine” amendment, could open the door to providing parents with children attending religious schools — Jewish, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Greek Orthodox — with the same approximate $8,500 annually per pupil that charter schools receive, all deducted from the budget of the local school district that the charter school pupils would otherwise attend.
Thirty-nine states, including New York, have passed versions of the Blaine amendment, named after James G. Blaine, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and defeated candidate for president in 1884. “Blaine” was adopted during a wave of anti-Catholic bigotry in the United States at New York State’s 1894 Constitutional Convention, after narrow failure of “Blaine” in the U.S. Congress.
The amendment bans any government aid to an institution with a religious affiliation.
Blaine is of dubious constitutional validity in light of United States Supreme Court decisions dating back to the 1920s. But Blaine advocates cite it as an excuse to deprive parents whose children are enrolled in religious schools with state aid.
Interestingly, Blaine’s proponents at the 1894 convention unsuccessfully tried to extend its provisions to hospitals, orphanages and other types of charities administered by religious bodies. The Jewish community, which at that time was not significantly engaged in sponsoring educational institutions but very much involved in hospitals, orphanages, etc. became aroused and combined with Catholics to defeat this extension.
Through the years “Blaine,” similar to most forms of religious and racial bigotry, has caused collateral damage, notably hindering efforts to reform New York State politics. For example, in 1967, a New York State Constitutional Convention submitted to voters a significantly improved constitution. Opponents waged a successful campaign to retain the existing constitution. They cited, in distorted fashion, the document’s inclusion of repeal of the Blaine Amendment. In actuality, the new constitution substituted the language of the federal Constitution mandating separation of church and state for Blaine, simultaneously providing citizens with the right to sue if the amended language was violated. Opponents included many New York City liberals, such as then Mayor John Lindsay, City Councilman Ed Koch, at the time considered a diehard leftist, the Liberal Party, Citizens Union and The New York Times.
In 1997, a similar argument was used by a new generation of liberals including Public Advocate Mark Green, Ruth Messinger, Norman Siegel, the Lexington Democratic Club coalescing with The Conservative Party, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Joe Bruno, the State AFL-CIO and, ironically, the Christian Coalition to defeat holding a constitutional convention.
Also going down to defeat in 1967 with the proposal to repeal Blaine and substitute language of the U.S. Constitution were sections of considerable value to good government in general and New York City in particular. As examples, consider the following:
* Article I included adding women and the disabled to those guaranteed equal protection of the laws. (In 40 years since, the legislature has refused submit as separate amendments this article and one preventing hate crimes to the voters);
* Article III prohibited gerrymandering and specified that districts must be compact and contiguous and apportioned by a nonpartisan commission... (Understandably, the dysfunctional Legislature has shown little interest in this article);
* Article IX required that in any law apportioning state aid to school districts, the basis of computing the number of pupils shall be the registration thereof. (City Councilman Robert Jackson, who initiated a lawsuit to remedy the present unfair apportionment of school aid to the city, was unaware that a previous generation of liberals opposed a constitution containing Article IX out of largely anti-Catholic bigotry.);
* In addition, New York City was to be relieved by the state under the new constitution of all expense for welfare and court costs. Koch and Lindsay assured voters that this proviso would be adopted as separate amendments within a few years. They were disappointed.
*The Blaine Amendment should certainly be repealed by the New York State Legislature because of the hate-filled manner in which it was adopted. But Supreme Court of the United States decisions dating back to 1925 -- when a Ku Klux Klan-sponsored Oregon law outlawing nonpublic schools, which would have included charter as well as religious schools, was declared unconstitutional -- should subsume the Blaine Amendment, provided none of the government aid is used for teaching religion. Therefore, deducting from any state grant the cost of such religious instruction as a school offers its pupils will suffice to bring Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox and Jewish schools operating under New York State’s Charter School Law is within the framework of the U.S. Constitution and need not await Blaine’s repeal which would necessitate two sessions of the state legislature and approval by New York State voters.
George Spitz is a retired state auditor and past candidate for mayor and Manhattan borough president.
The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.
Recent Special Sections