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Jewish World Review Nov. 11, 2002 / 6 Kislev, 5763

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Consumer Reports

A bigot's law | SEATTLE CAROLYN Harrison, 42, has enough on her plate. A mother of two school-age children, she teaches English and coaches girls' basketball at a Catholic high school in Tacoma, and is working toward certification as a school administrator. But now she also finds herself trying to overturn the nasty legacy of a 19th-century senator.

She is a plaintiff (as is a student at Eastern Washington University) in litigation (undertaken by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice) that may reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

It could overturn laws - 37 states, including all Western states, have them - that are residues of an ugly bigotry. Today these laws are the last recourse of opponents of school choice.

Harrison is neither a Catholic nor a crusader for school choice, and she knows little about Republican Sen. James G. Blaine of Maine. But she has been told that because of a law associated with him - a law reflecting anti-Catholic sentiments he exploited - she cannot perform the required (by the University of Washington, Tacoma, where she is enrolled) administrative internship at her school, Bellarmine Preparatory, a Jesuit school.

The university is merely following state policy, which bars public-university students from doing student teaching or internships in religious schools. This policy emanates from a state constitutional provision that says "no public money" shall be appropriated for the "support of any religious establishment."

Washington's attorney general says this requires "stricter separation of government from sectarian influence" than does the U.S. Constitution's proscription of "establishment" of religion. But the pedigree of this measure against "sectarian" influences is revealing.

In the mid-19th century, fear of Catholic immigrants was pervasive. Books like "An Irish Heart" warned that America might become the "common sewer of Ireland." In 1855, when Massachusetts' governor, every member of the state Senate, and all but four members of the House were members of the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party, that state established a Nunnery Investigating Committee to search for underground dungeons in convents.

America's Protestant majority wanted the public school to be, in the words of education reformer Horace Mann, a "nursery of piety" dispensing "judicious religious instruction," stressing the King James version of the Bible, which was not considered "sectarian." This would combat "the superstitious inheritance of priestcraft."

The movement to ban aid to "sectarian" schools targeted Catholics, who understandably resented public aid going only to schools that inculcated Protestantism.

Blaine, hoping to ride anti-Catholicism to the presidency, proposed a constitutional amendment in 1875 stipulating that no public money shall go to schools "under the control of any religious sect." The House passed the amendment; in the Senate it had majority support, but not the two-thirds required for an amendment.

But many states passed versions of the Blaine language, and Congress required Blaine amendments in the constitutions of new states. Today these provisions - products of Protestant chauvinism and anti-Catholic bigotry, not the idea of separation of church and state - are what opponents of school choice (teachers unions, especially) hope will enable them to withstand last June's Supreme Court ruling.

That ruling upheld the constitutionality of programs that empower parents (mostly inner-city minorities) to escape failing schools by redeeming tuition vouchers at religious schools - if the aid goes not directly to institutions but to parents exercising free choice. So anti-choice forces - the George Wallaces of liberalism, blocking the schoolhouse door - are reduced to blocking school choice using states' Blaine provisions.

This reliance on residues of 19th-century nativism is a tactic worthy of its objective, which is the continuing exploitation of underprivileged children trapped in failing public schools.

This tactic may be stymied by Harrison's suit. It reasons, as the U.S. Supreme Court did in the voucher case, that her choice to do her internship at a religious school would not implicate the state in endorsing religion. And for the state to forbid that choice constitutes unconstitutional discrimination - singling out a particular viewpoint for invidious treatment.

Neither ideological nor litigious, Harrison even regrets the wording of news reports about her case: "But I guess they have to say I am 'suing.' " She is indeed, and if the Supreme Court adheres to its recent reasoning, she will be able to do her internship at her school. And many inner-city children, in states that have interpreted their Blaine language to forbid vouchers even though they aid children, not religious institutions, are going to have better life prospects.

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