New Evidence Reveals Why 19th Century Bans on Sectarian Aid are Unconstitutional

I misinterpret things my mom tells me to do all the time. Somehow “pick up your toys” sounds a lot like “go watch T.V.” when my favorite show is on. Those phrases are interchangeable to me. But, treating words that aren’t synonyms as interchangeable can have consequences–as I find out when my mom catches me watching Nickelodeon instead of doing my chores.

In recent years, the meaning of sectarian has been conflated with the meaning of religious–especially in the debate surrounding Blaine Amendments. In his article in the Federalist Society Review, “Why Nineteenth Century Bans on ‘Sectarian’ Aid Are Facially Unconstitutional: New Evidence on Plain Meaning,” the Independence Institute’s constitutional jurisprudence expert Rob Natelson defines the critical difference between “sectarian” and “religious,” and the consequences this misinterpretation has led to in private school choice.

Mr. Natelson’s article is comprised of three primary sections that support his claim:

1. Nineteenth Century Constitutional Provisions Show that “Sectarian” Had a Meaning Separate from “Religious” or “Denominational”

This section focuses on the drafting of state constitutions and how the terms religious, denominational, and sectarian are used separately. Each has a distinguished meaning and are not used interchangeably in their respective clauses.

2. The Nineteenth Century Meaning of “Sectarian”

Excerpts from dictionaries and newspapers, including Webster’s Dictionary and The New York Times, are used in this section to exemplify that in 17th century language “sectarian” was synonymous with “heretic” or “bigot,” rather than “religious.”

3. Implications for Constitutionality

By the last section, the conclusion is clearly drawn that Blaine Clauses are discriminatory. This section also features a superb analogy relating to the freedom of speech:

“Suppose a state constitution provided that ‘No law shall be passed impairing the freedom of speech, except for the speech of extremists.’ The exception purports to enable those controlling the state government to deny speech rights to what they see as fringe groups. Therefore it facially violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments, regardless of whether the exception was directed at any particular minority at the time of adoption, or whether there was a subsequent reduction of animus toward the original target.”

The evidence in Mr. Natelson’s article thoroughly separates the meaning of “religious” from the meaning of “sectarian.” This delineation further proves the discriminatory history of Blaine Amendments and their irrelevance in the school choice debate–despite the fuss many have created in the support of these outdated and misinterpreted amendments.