The unconstitutional ghost of James G. Blaine

With all the hubbub around budgets and shutdowns, we missed an important story. A few weeks back, a prominent Maine politician got thumped by our nation’s highest court.

No, not Paul LePage. Or Janet Mills. Or Angus King.

His name? James G. Blaine.

For those who may not have delved deeply into Maine political history, a bit of context is in order. Blaine was born a Pennsylvanian. He became a professor of math and ancient languages in Kentucky. Then, in a story often repeated today, he met someone, fell in love, and got married. His wife was a Mainer; Mainers can be stubborn. So when the time came to start their life together, the call of the Pine Tree State was strong; they moved back to her home.

Crossing the Piscataqua, Mr. Blaine became an editor and owner of the Kennebec Journal. He leapt from the pages of print into the political arena. Augusta voters sent him to the State House, and then Maine voters sent him to Washington. He went on to have an illustrious career: speaker of the U.S. House, United States senator, Secretary of State (twice), and major party nominee for president.

While his biography is compelling, the years have distilled his memory into two sharp legacies. One, his residence in Augusta is now the official mansion of Maine governors: we call it “the Blaine House.” Two, the so-called “Blaine Amendments.”

These were laws or state constitutional amendments passed with “the will of the people” in a bigoted, popular uprising. The late 1800s saw significant Catholic immigration to the United States from nations like Italy and Ireland. These communities often built schools and churches as pillars of their community; the Blaine Amendments sought to prohibit those (Catholic) educational institutions from ever receiving public funds.

Fast forward to today. On June 26, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 — with Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer joining the majority — to strike down part of Missouri’s Blaine Amendment. That case dealt with a preschool affiliated with a Lutheran congregation and a grant program Missouri had established for organizations to renovate playgrounds and provide modern, recycled rubber ground covering.

The preschool applied for a grant and was denied. Not for a lack of need, or lack of available funds, or because of missing some administrative deadline. Instead, they were denied because they had an affiliation with a Lutheran ministry, as required by the Blaine Amendment, even though the preschool let the public use the playground; the benefits of the new covering weren’t limited to the children of churchgoers.

In its ruling, the court was clear that this was limited to the particular facts at issue. However, the underlying principle seems obvious: governments may not show preference for religious institutions, but neither may they discriminate against them for merely being religious.

That concept should cause the Maine Legislature to take at look at our own Blaine Amendment. There are some towns in Maine that do not have public schools and are not part of SADs or RSUs. Instead, they pay state-regulated tuition to send their students to other schools. Those “other schools” may be public or private. But, because of the Blaine Amendment, they cannot have any affiliation with a religious institution.

So, families in Raymond have numerous choices on which high school their students should attend. It could be Windham or Westbrook. It might be North Yarmouth Academy or Waynflete. But it can’t be Cheverus or Saint Dom’s. The legacy of anti-Catholicism continues.

Yet with the Supreme Court’s ruling, that legacy and its law may be unconstitutional.

As education reform continues to be a critical issue for our state — be it funding, or accountability, or voluntary cooperation — it is worth looking at our statute books to see whether the memory of James G. Blaine is unconstitutionally holding us back. If it is, then it may be time for that legacy to fade away as well.

But we can keep the Blaine House.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.