When Americans today think about the most powerful politician from Maine, they likely think of Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who often plays a key role in contentious legislation advanced by either party.

But 150 years ago, that person was Republican James G. Blaine, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1863 to 1876, many of those years as speaker, before moving on to serve in the Senate. Upon the election of James Garfield as president, he resigned his seat to become secretary of state. He would go on to lose a close presidential election in 1884 to Grover Cleveland.

Make no mistake about his legacy, Blaine sought to channel anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment in his unsuccessful bid for the White House. Religious strife existed across the country as more immigrants who practiced Catholicism arrived to make their home in America. Catholics were ostracized and tormented, in Maine and across the country, perhaps most notably Father John Bapst, who was quite literally tarred, feathered and ridden out of Ellsworth on a rail.

Blaine was the mastermind behind an 1875 constitutional amendment that sought to prohibit public funds from going to religious entities, specifically schools. But he and his supporters were not purely advancing establishment clause changes for a strict separation of church and state. Public schools at the time were overtly Protestant (many in Maine required the reading of the King James Bible), and Blaine was looking for Protestant support to help propel him to presidential victory.

The plan was to pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting public support of religious institutions, an indirect targeting of Catholic schools which were popping up due to the influx of new immigrants and their displeasure with the strong Protestant influence in public schools.

It eventually came back to bite him. He famously lost New York, home to many new immigrants, for not pushing back against a comment about “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” He lost the state by one-tenth of one percent, which would have otherwise delivered him a victory.


Fortunately, Blaine’s bigoted amendment was never added to the U.S. Constitution. While it passed overwhelmingly in the House, it failed to earn enough support in the Senate. But after losing the battle in Congress, Blaine’s idea was exported to the states. Some passed the language on their own, but the majority that backed his failed amendment at the federal level approved a law requiring territories that became new states to add such language in their enabling acts. That’s how we got to a place where 38 states eventually had Blaine Amendments in their state constitutions.

In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court struck a decisive blow to Blaine’s legacy in Espinoza v. Montana Dept of Revenue when it ruled the no-aid provision in the state’s constitution violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, and couldn’t be used to prohibit families from receiving a tax credit for making donations to religious schools as they would for donations to other private schools.

Last week, the court struck down the last vestiges of Blaine’s legacy in his home state. While Maine never adopted a Blaine Amendment, an opinion of then-Attorney General Richard Cohen, codified by the Legislature in 1981, added the “sectarian exclusion” to Maine’s town tuitioning program.

In Carson v. Makin, the high court similarly ruled that Maine cannot exclude religious schools from participating in the state’s school choice program solely because they are religious. Lower courts upheld the law even after Espinoza, trying to draw a distinction between religious status and religious use. They essentially said a participating school could be religious in name, but once they started doing religious things, a Maine parent could no longer receive public assistance in choosing to send their children there under the program.

It is, of course, a distinction without a difference, and the high court ruled as much last week. And thanks to its decision, James G. Blaine’s legacy of anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant bigotry no longer has a home in his home state of Maine.

— Special to the Telegram

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