Nevada ACLU gets crosswise on history with liberal U.S. Supreme Court justices

Steven Miller

Inadvertently, the ACLU’s recent Las Vegas Review-Journal op-ed was actually illuminating.

Illuminating, because it reveals how much the organization’s case against Nevada’s Education Savings Accounts has to rely upon historical ignorance and weasel words.

Take, for example, the ACLU’s recurrent use of, and indeed dependence upon, the word “sectarian.”

As virtually any dictionary will show, the word is basically an all-purpose term for disparaging some religions, frequently minority religions, of which the speaker is not a member. Dissident political and philosophical opinions, too, can be so characterized.

Thus, Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language defines sectarian as “1. adj. of or relating to a or sects || narrow-minded and ready to quarrel over petty differences of opinion 2. n. a member of a sect. || a narrow-minded or bigoted adherent of a sect.”

Webster’s then define the root term, sect, as “a body of people, sharing religious, philosophical or political opinions, who have broken away from a larger body (often used as a term of disapproval).”

Such a definition can encompass virtually any group, including the ACLU itself.

Nevertheless, made into a bugaboo word, sectarian has been used ever since the mid-19th century to try and intimidate politicians and parents, while minimizing parents’ control over their own children’s education.

Horace Mann — frequently described as the “father of public education,” although a more accurate term would be the father of centralized state-controlled schooling — was the great innovator here.

An adroit politician, Mann had, as majority leader of the Massachusetts State Senate, ushered into law a new state board of education. He then left the Senate and accepted appointment as the board’s secretary — effectively, its director.

Mann was a militant Unitarian who viewed “Calvinistic education” — with which he personally had had a bad experience growing up — as “an unspeakable calamity” for any child.

What Mann and a clique of similar-thinking Unitarians wanted, it’s now known, was to replace the dominant religions of New England in the minds of Massachusetts children with the clique’s “more enlightened” views. Using the schools, they hoped to mold a new “order of men” who would introduce many “reforms.”

Of course, Mann and his allies knew that Massachusetts parents would tolerate no common schools that failed to impart, along with the ABCs, an explicitly Christian morality. So Mann and the Unitarians crafted for the common schools a kind of least-common-denominator Christianity that — just coincidentally — happened to resemble the “liberal Protestantism” to which Mann and his allies themselves subscribed.

With this approach — and some ingenious packing of Massachusetts’ Board of Education —the clique successfully took control of K-12 education in Massachusetts.

They implemented mandatory reporting to Mann from all state common schools, the adoption of a Mann-prescribed “non-sectarian” school library, which all district schools were encouraged, but not required, to purchase, and state-run teacher-training “seminaries” where young women were taught to effuse the prescribed sort of liberal Protestantism.

The whole story is documented in The Myth of the Common School, by Charles L. Glenn, educational leadership professor at Boston University. Glenn, for 19 years the Massachusetts Department of Education’s director of urban education, used the department’s comprehensive Horace Mann archives for the book.

Mann’s concoction of state-controlled, politically governed “consensus” Protestantism in the schools rapidly spread throughout America, bullying Catholics and other new mid-19th century immigrants. When they sought educational equity, however, a powerful, angry and xenophobic movement arose.

It was the Know Nothings, waving Mann’s bugaboo word: “sectarianism.”

To U.S. Senator James G. Blaine, the movement appeared a good horse to ride to the presidency, and so he introduced his proposed “anti-sectarian” constitutional amendment — notwithstanding his own Catholic relatives. But an impolitic Protestant minister supporter’s slur against Catholics, declaring Democrats the party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion,” massively increased Irish-American turnout and lost New York for the Republican ticket.

Fears of Catholicism, however, continued, and Little Blaine Amendments got added to multiple state constitutions — including Nevada’s.

In their Zelman dissent, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled vouchers constitutional, Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer, John Paul Stevens and David Souter acknowledged the religious bias behind the amendments:

…the “Protestant position” on this matter, scholars report, “was that public schools must be ‘nonsectarian’ (which was usually understood to allow Bible reading and other Protestant observances) and public money must not support ‘sectarian’ schools (which in practical terms meant Catholic.)”

… this sentiment played a significant role in creating a movement that sought to amend several state constitutions (often successfully), and to amend the United States Constitution (unsuccessfully) to make certain that government would not help pay for “sectarian” (i.e., Catholic) schooling for children.

While the ACLU may wish to ignore Blaine-amendment origins, the history is clear.

Steven Miller is senior vice president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a nonpartisan, free-market think tank. For more visit

Steven Miller

Senior Vice President, Nevada Journal Managing Editor

Steven Miller is Nevada Journal Managing Editor, Emeritus, and has been with the Institute since 1997.

Steven graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Philosophy from Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna). Before joining NPRI, Steven worked as a news reporter in California and Nevada, and a political cartoonist in Nevada, Hawaii and North Carolina. For 10 years he ran a successful commercial illustration studio in New York City, then for five years worked at First Boston Credit Suisse in New York as a technical analyst. After returning to Nevada in 1991, Steven worked as an investigative reporter before joining NPRI.