The AntiAid Amendment

Every time the debate over public financing of private and religious schools heats up in Massachusetts, we hear the same legal arguments from each side of the debate: Funding advocates claim the state’s ban on government aid to private and parochial schools was motivated by 19th-century anti-Catholic bigotry and has no place in contemporary law. Nearly 150 years after this religious hatred was enshrined in an amendment to the state constitution, the argument goes, it’s time to erase the offensive language.

The other side, meanwhile, maintains there is no need to change the constitution. The bigoted language was already removed–in fact, more than eight decades ago.

So who is right? We may not get a definitive answer until a federal judge decides a lawsuit filed last year by three Massachusetts mothers seeking state financial assistance to send their children to Catholic schools.

But we can find some clues in the historical record.

Probing the history of the state’s ban on school vouchers

At least this much is clear: Historians agree that the original intent of the so-called “anti-aid amendment”–which prohibited state or local funds from being appropriated “to any religious sect for the maintenance, exclusively, of its own school”–was, indeed, anti-Catholic.

Introduced to the Massachusetts Constitution in 1855, it was a product of the “Know-Nothing Party,” which dominated state politics with its anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic crusade in the middle of the decade. Officially called the “American Party,” the Know-Nothings got their nickname because they swore their members to secrecy, even requiring them to call the organization by the code name “Sam.”

(The Know-Nothing measures in Massachusetts predated nativist movements in other parts of the country. In the mid-1870s Maine Republican James G. Blaine proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution barring aid to schools run by “any religious sect.” The proposal failed in the Senate, but a number of states, including New York, adopted Blaine-inspired amendments in the following decades.)

The Massachusetts anti-aid amendment was just one of many steps the Know-Nothings took to restrict the political power and influence of the growing number of Catholic immigrants to the state, according to historian John R. Mulkern, author of The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts (Northeastern University Press, 1990). Among the most infamous was the establishment of a Nunnery Committee to investigate allegations that nuns were holding young girls against their will in convent dungeons. They also fired state workers of Irish descent, required the reading of the Protestant version of the Bible every day in the public schools, and tried to prevent Roman Catholics from holding public office.

The Protestant majority used the anti-aid amendment to ensure that most of the state’s children would continue attending establishment schools where they would learn the Protestant curriculum and be immersed in Protestant culture. The amendment “amounted to a gratuitous swipe, under the guise of separation of church and state, at Catholic Bay Staters who had not raised the issue,” Mulkern wrote.

And Catholics were incensed. James O’Toole, a history professor at Boston College, says Catholics at the time complained that the state for years had been giving money to private institutions, such as Harvard University and the Massachusetts General Hospital. “And only now, when Catholics are going to get some share of the money for their colleges and hospitals and so on, the Legislature wants to cut that off,” O’Toole said. “They thought this is a form or expression of religious bigotry. And they were . . . right.”

But the amendment was replaced in 1917. And today’s debate centers on whether those changes simply strengthened the religious bigotry–or eliminated it. “The 1917 record is a lot cloudier,” O’Toole said.

The new amendment extended the ban on public funding to all private schools–and, in fact, all charitable institutions–well beyond the religious schools originally targeted.

But this time, the principal authors and backers of the amendment were not anti-Catholic Know-Nothings, O’Toole said. In fact, they were Irish Catholic Democrats–Martin Lomasney, a longtime ward boss from the old West End, and John McCormack, later the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Their goal was to reduce “a kind of permanent disadvantage at the public trough” that they felt Catholic institutions always would have in the shadow of the Protestants in Massachusetts, O’Toole said. “Their take on all this in 1917 was, well, even if Catholic institutions start to get some public money . . . they’ll always be at a disadvantage. Harvard will always get more than Boston College, the Mass. General Hospital will always get more than St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. So their view is, why don’t we just shut it down all together so nobody gets any public money.”

In the end, 85 of the 94 Catholic delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1917 voted in favor of the new amendment; only nine Catholic delegates opposed it.

But O’Toole acknowledges that the amendment “touched a raw nerve among Catholics.” And the debate was fierce both inside and outside the convention hall.

In his history of the Constitutional Convention published in 1923, Raymond L. Bridgman wrote this account: “Though the official record cannot show the truth . . . the real cause of the collision over the anti-aid amendment was the antagonism of Catholic and Protestant. Many Protestants feared, with the growing strength of the Catholics, that the latter would become a majority in political power and then would come appropriations of public money to parochial schools. The anti-aid amendment came at this juncture.”

The Archdiocesan newspaper, The Boston Pilot, editorialized against it. And The New York Times even railed against it in an editorial: “The so-called ‘sectarian’ or ‘non-sectarian’ amendment, directed in reality against the Catholic Church, is a fine bit of political bigotry.”

A week before election day, when voters would decide whether to ratify the amendment, Cardinal William O’Connell, the leader of the Boston Archdiocese, blasted the measure as blatantly bigoted, according to an essay by O’Toole in the book Catholic Boston (Archdiocese of Boston, 1985): “To expect the Catholic citizens of this democracy to accept such a gratuitous insult is to attribute to them a servility and a cowardice too mean for words to express.”

Cardinal O’Connell said it was unfair to “change the rules of the game” now that public money could start going to Catholic, as well as Protestant, institutions. “At the time when, with the keenness of a jealous vision, it was foreseen in certain quarters that at last our voice, too, might at least begin to be audible, even before we have a chance to speak, the door is slammed violently in our faces.”

Two days before the election, Cardinal O’Connell said in another speech that the contention “that no insult is intended to Catholics” was “merely smooth talk which can deceive nobody,” according to Bridgman’s account. The cardinal went on to say that “any man calling himself a Catholic who, after the clearest light poured upon the whole situation, persists in advocating the passing of the amendment or votes for it himself is guilty of an action of which, let us hope, he may have the grace some day to repent. But the effects of his action will work out an incalculable wrong which one day he will rue.”

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On Nov. 6, 1917, the voters went to the polls. There were 206,329 voting in favor of the amendment and 130,357 voting against it. It was approved by a margin of 61 to 39 percent.

Bridgman concluded: “So the people settled nominally and for the time the century-long vexed problem.”