WASHINGTON (ABP) — The Georgia Senate has passed an amendment to the state constitution that would remove barriers to churches, parochial schools and other religious groups receiving taxpayer dollars.
The Republican-controlled body voted 40-14 Jan. 15 to approve the proposed amendment. It now goes to the state's House of Representatives. However, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it may face a stiff challenge from that body's Democratic leaders.
The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that the federal Constitution allows indirect state funding of religious schools through voucher-type scholarship programs as long as secular alternatives are available. But Georgia and many other states have provisions in their state constitutions that specifically bar the state from funding churches and other religious groups — even if such funding is done indirectly.
And the federal courts have repeatedly ruled that the government may only fund activities conducted by religious groups when they achieve a secular purpose. The government is not allowed to fund inherently religious activities — such as worship or indoctrination.
The state constitutional provisions prohibiting funding of religious groups are commonly grouped under the title “Blaine Amendments,” after 19th-century U.S. Sen. James Blaine of Maine. He proposed a similar amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Although it narrowly failed, many states modeled state provisions after it.
Supporters of government funding for religious groups say Blaine amendments are vestiges of anti-Catholic sentiment that was rampant in the United States during the 1800s. But supporters of strict church-state separation say the amendments are useful in guaranteeing religious freedom today and often were instituted less out of anti-Catholic bias than in reaction to aggressive attempts by Catholic organizations to receive government funding.
Currently, the relevant portion of the Georgia Constitution reads, “No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, cult, or religious denomination or of any sectarian institution.”
The amendment would add this clause before that provision: “Except as permitted or required by the United States Constitution, as amended.”
The measure would require two-thirds approval in the House and then would be put before the state's voters for ratification. Its backers, including Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), have insisted it is not part of a plan to impose a state school-voucher program. They have said it is merely intended to open up religious social-service providers to state funds. However, a Perdue spokesman did tell an ABP reporter that the amendment would open the legal door to a future voucher proposal.
But House Democrats have threatened to propose an alternative amendment that would specifically preclude voucher programs that include religious schools.