Public Financing of Religious Schools: Justice Clarence Thomas's 'Bigotry Thesis'

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United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for a plurality of the Court in Mitchell v. Helms in 2000, advanced the idea that state constitutional prohibitions against public funding of religious schools were manifestations of anti-Catholic bigotry in the late 19th century. Thomas's reading of history and law led him to believe that James G. Blaine, a political leader in the United States of that era who advanced a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would have prohibited states from funding Catholic schools, was himself imbued with anti-Catholic bigotry and that his proposed amendment was a well-spring of religious intolerance that today, prevents public funding of Catholic schools. This article attempts to look further into the issue to determine whether Thomas's understanding is accurate and whether it comports with the reality of conditions of the era, and whether Blaine in fact had such motivations as ascribed to him by Justice Thomas. The article concludes that Thomas's view is overly simplistic and is based on an insular perception of Protestant versus Catholic intolerance in the United States, and leaves out of consideration the fact that the real and larger issue of the era in the Western world was the struggle between secularism and sectarianism, modernity and tradition, science and superstition, and individual liberty and clerical control. Importantly, the article concludes that Thomas's narrow thesis ignores international dimensions of conflicts of the era that pitted the impulse of nationalism and republican government against control of ecclesiastics regardless of whether they were Catholic or Protestant. Such conflicts prevailed especially over control of education throughout Europe, as well as the United States, and were more intense in countries where people were predominately Catholic, such as Italy and France, than in the United States, where the majority of the citizenry adhered to Protestantism. Thus, this paper concludes that the motivation of Blaine and others, who sought to prevent religious control of education by denial of public funding to clerical institutions, was part of a trend in the Western world to advance nationalism and to reduce internal divisiveness, religious, ethnic or racial, to build unity - e pluribus unum.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)156-178
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Education Finance
Issue number2
StatePublished - Sep 2008

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Finance
  • Public Administration


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