Refusing to send their children to schools that clashed with their values, many Catholic families (often immigrants) created their own private, religiously affiliated school systems. In turn, those parochial schools quickly became a target for bigoted attacks, most infamously by the Know Nothing party, and later by the American Protective Association. The association was particularly powerful in Montana: At the APA’s peak, up to one-tenth of Montana residents were members. The fact that Blaine Amendments featured so prominently in the platforms of those groups clearly shows that prejudice was a motivating factor behind state Blaine Amendments.
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The language in Blaine Amendments is another giveaway, given that they targeted “sectarian” schools. As the libertarian think tank Independence Institute detailed in an amicus brief for the Espinoza case, sectarian and religious were not synonymous. Throughout the 19th century, dictionaries and newspapers regularly distinguished the two terms, with sectarian usually considered “a pejorative term for religions viewed negatively.” Nor was sectarian limited to tarnishing Catholics. Essentially, any non-Protestant religious minority could be (and often was) labeled “sectarian,” including Mormons, Jews, and “Mohammedans” (i.e., Muslims).
This distinction was well known to Montana legislators. Prior to statehood, in 1872, Montana passed a law that barred government funding to any public school or school library that distributed “sectarian” books, but it didn’t prevent some public schools from forcing their students to read the King James Bible. Notably, lawmakers had previously tried—and failed—to ban “any publication of a religious character” from the territory’s common schools. Unlike the earlier proposal, which would have been uniformly secular, the 1872 law reinforced a two-tier system that continued to favor Protestants under the guise of battling “sectarianism.”
Further revealing that Blaine Amendments weren’t driven by lofty notions of separating Church and state was the scorn that proponents levied against nonbelievers. For instance, in his 1875 speech, President Grant envisioned providing “every child growing up in the land [with] the opportunity of a good common-school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistical dogmas.”
In 1972, the state’s bitter history became a flash point when its Blaine Amendment was up for re-ratification at a new Montana Constitutional Convention. During the convention, several delegates slammed the state’s Blaine Amendment as a “badge of bigotry” and “remnant … of a long-past era of prejudice.”
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Despite those objections, Montana’s Blaine Amendment was re-ratified. The only major difference between the 1889 and 1972 amendments is that under the latter, federal funding for private schools is exempt from Montana’s ban on aid to sectarian schools. And while Montana in 1972 had certainly grown more tolerant toward Catholics since 1889, the new Blaine Amendment was “intended” to “retain the meaning” of its predecessor, as the transcript of the constitutional convention shows and, later, the Montana Supreme Court confirmed.