Neutrality Partiality

I have a short essay on the Library of Law and Liberty site involving the idea of religious neutrality when it comes to American public and private education. It was occasioned in part by the Colorado Supreme Court’s recent decision invalidating, pursuant to its state Blaine Amendment, a local program that would have made tuition scholarships available to certain students, which the students could then use to pay to attend private religious and nonreligious schools. I criticize the decision but use it to talk about certain broader issues. Here’s a bit from the conclusion:

Focusing on these details of Colorado law, however, obscures certain larger questions. If “sectarian” truly does mean “Catholic,” and even if it means, as Black’s Law Dictionary says, “of, relating to, or involving a particular religious sect,” then any state Blaine Amendment with this language would be subject to constitutional challenge under the Supreme Court’s free exercise law. “Sectarian” does not sound particularly neutral; or, to the extent it does, it sounds in the rather counterintuitive neutrality of state-endorsed religious hostility. Yet even this perspective on the question of neutrality passes over the colossal non-neutrality of the government’s systematic and exclusive funding of its own putatively religion-neutral schools, to the detriment of able students—many of them from poor and educationally underserved communities—who would greatly benefit from private religious schooling. Neutrality between religion and non-religion seems to demand a plainly partial allocation of resources. Or, one variety of government neutrality—no funding of religious schools—obstructs the achievement of another—educational opportunity.

The question of the place of religion in American educational life—whether in the nation’s public schools or in its position on private religious schools—will not be answered by neutrality talk, for the fundamental reason that nothing in the projects of American education is or ever has been neutral toward religion. From the very first, it was precisely the non-neutrality of the state toward religion that has been one of the prime catalysts of cultural and legal development in American education policy, public and private. There is an understandable tendency among some opponents of state Blaine Amendments such as Colorado’s to reduce them to simple expressions of non-neutral anti-Catholicism. Often they were that, but they were more.

To understand them merely in these terms—as lamentable examples of “discrimination”—domesticates them. It consigns them to a history from which we have happily progressed now that we have entered an epoch in which the making of discriminations of any kind is taboo. It puffs us up with the Whiggish certitude that to repudiate the Blaine Amendments is to rid ourselves decisively of the very real problem they addressed. That problem—how to foster through education the common civic culture upon which the American polity, even still, depends—does not vanish by easy, self-congratulatory resort to the voguish platitudes of antidiscrimination. The Blaine Amendments were woefully inadequate responses to that problem, but responses nonetheless. The empty bromide of religious neutrality is no response at all.

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