Way back in 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant called for a Constitutional amendment that would mandate free public schools and prohibit the use of public money for “sectarian” purposes.
The idea of free public schools wasn’t new, but neither was it universal. And it wasn’t unheard of for various state governments to support education provided through religious institutions. It was working, and seemed practical at one time, so why not?
Republican Congressman James G. Blaine was happy to comply and proposed such an amendment. It came close to passage, but fell just short and never became law.
Over time, however, various Supreme Court rulings essentially codified the same principle. It’s a tricky balance sometimes (should states help Catholic schools buy Algebra textbooks?), but generally the separation between church and state is assumed in most circumstances – including school funding.
Most states – including Oklahoma – were less ambivalent, and have language similar to Blaine’s original proposal in their state constitutions, often informally referenced as ‘the Blaine Amendment’. For example, Article 2, Section 5 of Oklahoma’s constitution says this:
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.
That language, along with Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment over the years, is why we can’t have a 10 Commandments monument on capitol grounds. It’s also why ESAs/vouchers are unconstitutional– even those currently hidden behind the shield of ‘special needs’.
The courts haven’t agreed with me on that one yet, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.
Religious diversity in the United States has expanded considerably since 1875, making the distinction between faith and politics even more appropriate. Disputes which used to involve whether or not copper buttons on your coat would cost you your eternal soul now seem quaint compared to disagreements over which god is the “real” one, or what caliber Jesus would use to eliminate children of other faiths.
It can get personal.
For people of relatively orthodox faith in Oklahoma, this increasing diversity looks and feels very much like their fundamental beliefs and lifestyles are under some sort of attack. What used to be assumed is now suddenly controversial, and traditions which used to bind communities together are now accused of being dangerous and wrong-headed.
Take a moment and appreciate how disturbing this is to someone not quite so detached and smugly intellectual as those on the opposite extreme. These aren’t bad people, for the most part – they’re just a little freaked out and worried about the world in which their kids are growing up.