The Long View on Public Funding of Religious Schools

6 July 2022

At Notre Dame, where I teach history and serve as provost, students use Pell grants to offset tuition payments. Biologists pay for microscopes through Indirect costs from National Institute of Health grants. Historians vie for National Endowment of the Humanities fellowships.

Should such Federal subsidies to a religious institution be permitted? Notre Dame’s mission statement is unambiguous: it is a “Catholic community of higher learning.” Most commentators accept such funding for religious institutions of higher education. The debate over funding for religious schools at the K-12 level is more contentious, in the United States and elsewhere.

To read Carson v. Makin, a controversial—but far from the most controversial—Supreme Court decision announced last month, is to enter that conversation. The majority opinion, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, outlines the issues with forensic concision. Maine permitted taxpayer funded subsidies for students enrolled in private schools in rural areas where a public school did not exist, but not subsidies to private religious schools. Roberts explains that no state must subsidize private schools, but insists that if a state does, it cannot discriminate against religious schools.

Justice Breyer’s dissent offers a valiant, if contorted, rationale for continuing the state ban on aid to parents choosing religious schools. What for Roberts is discrimination against religion is for Breyer a prudent decision to limit religious conflict. The United States possesses well over one hundred fractious religious groups, he warns, and “religious strife” will result from the court’s ruling. Maine’s legislators wisely evaded such clashes. Justice Sotomayor is blunt. She views the majority opinion justices as dismantling “the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers sought to build.”

Neither the Roberts majority opinion nor the Breyer and Sotomayor dissents take the longer view. Alexis de Tocqueville did. In mid-19th century France, the same issue of religious educational institutions was a major political issue. Systems of mass publicly funded education began across Europe and in North America in the 1840s, as literacy became understood as crucial to economic mobility and as citizens, not simply subjects, began to elect their leaders. Tocqueville’s close friend, the Catholic aristocrat Charles Montalambert, formed a short-lived political party in opposition to French liberals demand for a unified, state-controlled “monopoly” from primary schools up to the Sorbonne. “We are the sons of the Crusaders,” Montalambert thundered in the National Assembly, “and we will not yield to the sons of Voltaire.” Tocqueville despaired of Montalambert’s histrionics. He thought Montalembert veered toward attacking “freedom of thought itself, the very principle of lay education in France.” At the same time, Tocqueville conceded, Montalembert’s opponents risked attacking “religion itself.”

In the late nineteenth century, on both sides of the Atlantic, the debate over religion and publicly funded schools crested. Secular public schools came to be seen, in some countries, as indispensable to civic formation. Because Catholic schools were far and away the largest single system of private schools, and because Catholics with their claims of papal infallibility and belief in miracles such as Lourdes seemed opposed to scientific empiricism, republican governments in France effectively banned religious schools and exiled tens of thousands of nuns and priests, who often, ironically, went on to found Catholic schools throughout the French empire. A few exiled priests came to my employer, an institution of higher education founded by a French Catholic religious order and still formally named Notre Dame du Lac. In the 1880s and 1890s, many states in the United States passed so-called Blaine laws, named after the Republican senator from Maine, James Blaine. These laws inserted into state constitutions a ban on governmental aid to religious schools. In Holland, Canada and Prussia, the resolution was quite different: there accredited schools from multiple religious traditions became eligible for government subsidies. In overwhelmingly Catholic countries such as Spain, Ireland and Ecuador, public schools effectively became Catholic schools, with almost no recognition of conscience rights for unbelievers, Protestants or Jews.

This global debate was reinvigorated after World War II. Just as in the 1870s, expanding networks of Catholic schools seemed to many liberals incompatible with the need to prepare citizens for self-government. Hadn’t Catholics, they wondered, been especially susceptible to the allure of fascism in the 1930s? French liberals bemoaned children educated in a “spiritual ghetto” and American Supreme Court justices privately regretted that in 1925 the Court had defended the right of Catholics to manage their own schools.

By contrast, many Catholics, including Pope Pius XII, identified the ability of parents to choose Catholic schools for their children as a basic human right, preceding the right of the state to educate its citizens. A West Ger­man cardinal thought an absence of public funding for religious schools risked making democracy “nothing more than a shell.” (A “strike” by forty thousand West German Catholic schoolchildren—orchestrated by that country’s bishops—only reinforced the point.) Funding for Catholic schools continued in Belgium, but controversies over religion and education extended to the Belgian Congo. There Catholics founded the country’s first university and threatened a student strike if funding was withdrawn, even as they attempted to rebut claims that they favored “theocratic” education. In the United States, the issue of public support for Catholic schools animated two of the most controversial Supreme Court decisions of the 1940s as justices wary of Catholicism invoked Thomas Jefferson’s offhand phrasing of a “wall of separation” for the first time to distinguish church from state. In France, government ministries denied funding for Catholic schools in the 1940s, but Charles de Gaulle instituted it in modified form at the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958.

The current relationship between religion and education remains difficult to categorize, with religious schools in many countries, especially in the Global South, receiving public subsidies if they effectively educate children in basic skills. (Some sixty-two million children attend Catholic schools around the world; the biggest areas of growth for Catholic schools are in India and Africa.)  In the United States, the high tide of 1960s era legal secularism is receding, even as the society itself has become more secular. Then the Warren Court confidently banned prayer and Bible reading in public schools and devised stern tests to separate religion from public education. (Federal judges even teetered on banning any taxpayer dollars reaching religious colleges.) Now, Christian K-12 schools of many types–neither school in the Maine lawsuit is Catholic–as well as schools founded by Orthodox Jews strategize to obtain government funds.

Democrats will need to figure out what principle allows them to at once celebrate multiculturalism and affirmative action, while rejecting any funding of religiously affiliated schools. Carson v Makin does not resolve the issue, but Breyer accurately notes that the conservative majority on the court might next dismantle bans on religiously affiliated charter schools. (Publicly funded but privately run charter schools already educate a majority of students in cities such as New Orleans). A core Democratic party constituency, teachers’ unions, is resolutely opposed to any funding for parents choosing religious schools and only slightly less hostile to public charter schools. A less organized but even more vital Democratic constituency, African-American voters, is more sympathetic.

Republican voters and justices appointed by Republican presidents face challenges of their own, even in this moment of triumph. Their desire to challenge affirmative action in universities, as most seem eager to do, must be reconciled with their frequent praise for the institutional diversity embodied by religious schools.

They should also reckon with what a weakening confidence in public education means for American democracy. Hyperbolic reactions to Carson v. Makin by normally sensible voices such as Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, who calls the Roberts majority opinion a victory for “Christian nationalists,” do not persuade. Still, one of Justice Breyer’s basic points should not be ignored: schools, and especially public schools, remain “a most vital civic institution for the preservation of a democratic system of government.”

Put another way: healthy democracies depend on healthy public institutions. American democracy is not healthy. A President who tried to orchestrate a coup, after all, appointed three of the current Supreme Court justices. That taxpayer dollars reach universities such as my own is for the moment uncontroversial. That taxpayer dollars will now reach religious grade schools in Maine and elsewhere still provokes headlines. Already the neighborhood public school serves fewer students than it did a generation ago. Carson v. Makin may accelerate this trend. Let’s hope that the leaders of all schools receiving public funds, secular and religious, recognize the need, now more than ever, to cultivate civic along with religious virtues.


John T. McGreevy is the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost at the University of Notre Dame. Some of the material in this essay is drawn from his Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis, to be published this fall by W.W. Norton.

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