By FATHER DOUGLAS K. CLARK | Published February 19, 2004
The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States declares, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The clause on religion has been the subject of much debate over the 213 years since its inclusion in the Constitution. It might help to understand the historical context in which this amendment was adopted.
Nearly a century before the American Bill of Rights was adopted, a British convention (acting in place of parliament in 1689) passed a Bill of Rights that ended the rule of King James II, established a new parliamentary regime, under William III and Mary II (James’ own daughter) and guaranteed certain rights to their subjects; freedom of religion was not among them. The Catholic James II’s Declaration of Toleration for both Protestant and Catholic dissenters from the Church of England “by law established” had preceded the so-called “Glorious Revolution,” which toppled James in 1688 and strengthened the Anglican establishment, if only for a while. While favoring religious toleration may now seem liberal and open-minded, it was apparently regarded as tyrannical in 1688, especially on the part of a Catholic monarch in a Protestant country.
No Established Church
As many of the inhabitants of the British colonies in North America were non-Anglicans, in other words, dissenters (Congregationalists, Baptists, Dutch Reformed, Quakers, Methodists and Catholics) and relatively few were Anglican (Episcopalian), Americans, unlike their British brethren, quite naturally tended towards religious toleration and became increasingly distrustful of the very idea of an established religion. Such state-sanctioned churches did not easily tolerate other views and the whole community would be taxed in some fashion to support an established Church, causing resentment among any non-members.
Therefore, the Bill of Rights barred the federal government from establishing any one religion and soon the states also ceased to recognize established churches within their jurisdiction. And yet religion flourished in the new United States. Here at least, churches and synagogues operated successfully on a completely voluntary basis, with no financial support and no interference from the state. While there were sporadic attacks on Catholic institutions by Nativists and the like, the Catholic Church, for the most part, flourished in the atmosphere of American religious liberty, so much so that at the Second Vatican Council, the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray helped draft the Declaration on Religious Liberty that signaled the Church’s acceptance of a “free church in a free state”—a formula once condemned in a different context.
In the United States, the Catholic Church has always contributed to the larger community, particularly in the areas of education and health care. At times, church and state actually cooperated in some ventures. For example, after the Civil War, an agreement called the “Savannah Plan” was made with the civil authorities by which Catholic schools in Savannah were funded by the county, though religion was taught in these schools at times outside the regular school day. But at the time of Sen. Tom Watson’s anti-Catholic political movement, a Georgia attorney general issued an opinion that the “Savannah Plan” was probably unconstitutional.
As the so-called “separation of Church and State” (a phrase not found in the Constitution) came to be more rigidly defined, various legislative acts, such as the Blaine Amendment to the Georgia Constitution, were passed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This amendment is named after U.S. Sen. James G. Blaine of Maine (1830-1893), who proposed, at a time of increased anti-Roman Catholic bigotry, an amendment to the United States Constitution prohibiting all forms of government support for any religious institution or its endeavors. (Sen. Blaine was defeated in his bid for the White House in 1884, when he lost the Irish vote in part because of a remark made in his presence by one of his partisans, the Rev. Dr. Samuel D. Blanchard, to the effect that the opposing party had its antecedents in “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion.”) Although his proposed amendment to the federal constitution failed to be ratified, various states adopted the essence of his proposal. The Blaine Amendment to the Georgia Constitution (Art. I, § II, VII) reads, “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.”
Gov. Sonny Perdue has introduced a constitutional amendment to add to the beginning of the Blaine Amendment the following line: “except as permitted or required by the United States Constitution, as amended.” The governor rightly points out that the Blaine Amendment “presents an even higher barrier to faith-based initiatives than the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” The governor’s amendment would allow the state to help fund certain social services provided by religious institutions for the benefit of the entire community. There are many such institutions in the Diocese of Savannah, institutions that reach out to those in need, regardless of race, creed or national origin. Many operate on “shoe-string budgets.” The good they do could be multiplied and strengthened by additional funding made possible by the proposed amendment.
The governor points out that there has been a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions affirming that the U.S. Constitution allows for faith-based providers of human services to receive government funding in certain circumstances. When such providers clearly benefit the community in an inclusive way, the community’s support should not be denied them.
Support Faith And Family Measure
The proposed resolution has passed the state Senate and now requires a two-thirds affirmative vote in the House of Representatives. To express support for the proposed amendment (HR 941), contact your representative. If the Faith and Family Services Amendment passes the Assembly, it will appear on the November ballot and will require a majority vote to be ratified.
Georgia voters deserve a chance to amend the Blaine Amendment and to promote religious toleration. It has been over 300 years since the “Glorious Revolution.” Surely it is time to stop equating toleration with tyranny, in the old British manner, and to equate it with liberty, as did our Founding Fathers.
Father Douglas K. Clark is the editor of The Southern Cross, the newspaper of the Diocese of Savannah.