The effort to remove a measure from the Oklahoma Constitution ensuring the basic separation of church and state is getting based on a specious, disingenuous and reductionist argument.
The full story behind the so-called “Blaine Amendment,” or Article 2, Section 5, in the Oklahoma Constitution, is one that very much supports the argument that former President and Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant wanted a public school system that was free from religious dogma and available to all children. That remains a noble and just cause. States, including Oklahoma, later used Grant’s initial philosophy and words to create constitutions that clearly separated church and state in much broader terms.
Any argument that narrows those parameters to speculate the measure was just primarily based on an anti-Catholic bias, or thus based on prejudice, simply leaves out so much it becomes useless as a historical reference.
— Tulsa World (@tulsaworld) March 8, 2016
Here’s the situation: The Oklahoma Supreme Court recently ordered a Ten Commandments monument removed from the state Capitol grounds, basing their decision on Article 2, Section 5, of the state constitution, which reads:
No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.
The Oklahoma Senate, in an apparent response to an obvious and logical judicial decision, has now passed Senate Joint Resolution 72 in a 39-5 vote that would give voters an opportunity to remove the language from the constitution in the upcoming election, and thus, it’s presumed at the very least, allow Ten Commandments and other religious monuments on government property. The resolution was sponsored by state Sen. Rob Standridge, a Norman Republican, who said the item in the constitution “represented an effort to suppress Catholic education . . .”
In the news release on the vote, Standridge also called the language the “Blaine amendment.” James Blaine was a post-civil war American Congressman and politician from Maine. He tried to get Congress in 1875 to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution containing similar language to what is now contained in the Oklahoma Constitution. That effort failed, but those who supported it managed to get the language embedded in most state constitutions. Thus, the term “Blaine Amendment,” or “The Blaines.”
What’s important to note in a larger sense is that the language echoes the basic separation of church and state as outlined in the U.S. Constitution and in subsequent court rulings through the decades, and Blaine, according to historians, was acting in accordance with Grant, who was president of the time. Our school systems were much different in 1875 than they are now, of course, and while it’s true that Catholic educators were seeking government money for funding at this time, it doesn’t mean the Blaine Amendments can be construed as a simple case of bigotry. In hindsight, how can the prohibition of religious intrusion into government be seen as a major case of bigotry at all?
If Catholic education was getting specifically targeted in 1875, and that’s just one question, then it was only because they wanted government support for their educational systems. Under that rubric, protestant schools were targeted as well.
The larger issue of a widely available public school system unencumbered by religious dogma was expressed clearly by Grant in a 1875 speech:
Resolve that neither the state nor nation, nor both combined, shall support institutions of learning other than those sufficient to afford to every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistical dogmas. Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate. With these safeguards, I believe the battles which created the Army of the Tennessee will not have been fought in vain.
Grant’s words and efforts on this issue were the main reason behind Article 2, Section 5, in the Oklahoma Constitution, language that protects us all from religious intrusion. As more states were added to the union, it became increasingly clear that separation of church and state was extremely important, and state leaders added the language to their constitutions knowing full well its broader implications in the public square. It was about a lot more than Catholic schools at that point. Standridge and other supporters of placing a Ten Commandments monument on Capitol grounds should tell the full story behind the “Blaine Amendment” if they’re going to use it as a basis for their argument.
Oklahoma’s conservative politicians are simply pandering to the right-wing religious folks, but will it even make a difference? If the Ten Commandments monument makes its way back on government property, then it will just get challenged again on the federal judicial level. It’s unconstitutional on a federal level as well, and the lawsuits will continue.
So it goes in Oklahoma as the state faces a revenue failure and a $1.3 billion budget shortfall next year.