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Bishop Edward Burns

A BISHOP’S PERSPECTIVE in the Juneau Empire

These past two weeks I have been reflecting on proposed legislation endorsed by Gov. Sean Parnell that would place before the voters the repeal of the Blaine Amendment in the Alaska Constitution. This would give Alaska parents the freedom to use all or part of their child’s share of public educational funding to choose the school that best meets their child’s needs.

The Blaine amendment, which was unfortunately included in the Alaska Constitution, is rooted in 19th century anti-Catholic bigotry and discrimination. Initially proposed in 1875 by Speaker of the House James Blaine as an amendment to the United States Constitution, it was intended, under the rhetoric of “separation of church and state,” to block any public funding of “sectarian” (meaning Catholic) schools, even when this would have been permitted under the First Amendment. Tellingly, Blaine and his supporters had no objection to prayer, Bible reading or religious instruction in the public schools, as long as it was non-denominational and Protestant.

The Blaine Amendment and other national and state laws ostensibly intended to separate church and state grew out of a pervasive prejudice that many Americans held regarding Roman Catholicism, which they believed was incompatible with democracy and freedom. Many 19th century native-born Americans were openly suspicious of the loyalty and patriotism of the millions of Catholic immigrants (mostly Irish) entering the country, fearing that their first and most important allegiance was to the Pope, who they considered an authoritarian and anti-democratic foreign ruler.

Although this attempt to amend the national constitution narrowly failed in the Senate, Congress did require that all states admitted to the Union after 1876 must include a version of the Blaine Amendment prohibiting the use of public funds to wholly or in part support religious schools. This is how it came to be included almost 100 years later in the Alaska Constitution.

Repeal of the Blaine Amendment would, for the first time since territorial days, allow public per-pupil funds to be used by parents to send their children to the school of their choice, including religious and other private schools. Such funding would still have to satisfy the stringent requirements of the First Amendment and the corresponding provision of the Alaska Constitution.

As a citizen and as a Catholic leader, I believe that in the 21st century the Blaine Amendment should be removed from our state’s Constitution. I welcome legislation that would allow the citizens of this state to repeal its provisions.

Not only does this amendment motivate sectarian prejudice and have no place in our state Constitution, but parents should also have the freedom and the resources necessary to send their children to the school which best meets their needs. They should be able to do so using their child’s share of public education funding through programs of parental choice such as tuition tax credits, educational savings accounts, scholarship tax credits or opportunity scholarships.

Growing up as I did in Pittsburgh, I am grateful that my parents were able to choose the schools that I attended as a child and as a teenager. In my early childhood I attended two Catholic schools where I was taught by dedicated and committed religious sisters. For high school I attended Lincoln High School, a public institution. In choosing these schools, religious and public, my mother and father exercised their right and responsibility to choose the school best suited for their children. I am grateful to them for the education I received, an education reflecting the value they placed on academic faith formation, excellence, high moral and ethical standards and religious instruction.

However, in our state and across our nation, there are many families, especially those in poverty, who do not have the financial resources to choose the best school for their children. All of our families in Alaska should have access to the resources needed in order to attend the school of their choice, including traditional public schools, public charter schools, secular and religious private schools and homeschooling.

In addressing parental choice, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has said: “For nearly 150 years, the Church has unequivocally taught that parents have the right and responsibility to serve as the primary educators of their children. To assist them in this sacred duty, the Church has articulated clearly that children have the universal right to an education in faith, and the state has the fundamental obligation to enable such a right. In both written word and lived witness, the Church has advanced parental choice as a fundamental part of its mission to protect the equality of educational opportunity that is the birthright of all children.”

• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.

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