The documentary “Big Sacrifices, Big Dreams: Ending America’s Bigoted Education Laws,” released by the Pioneer Institute, presented on the topic of legal barriers to school choice at a free screening at Fontbonne Academy on Jan. 23. The viewing featured opening remarks by Raymond Flynn, former ambassador to the Vatican and former mayor of Boston, and was followed by a panel discussion.
The film follows the struggle of four families to send their children to religiously affiliated schools, an endeavor complicated by the presence of laws like the Blaine Amendment in some states. Households seeking to enroll students in Catholic schools face economic hurdles and are not met with government support, limiting their ability to make a decision.
“Folks who are against school choice are buying into a set of attitudes and a movement that started in anti-Catholic bigotry,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, arguing that current laws stem from discriminatory views.
The Blaine Amendment is a provision in 38 state constitutions that denies government funding to religiously affiliated schools. According to the film, the amendment is historically linked to 19th century anti-Catholic sentiment and Protestant rivalry and has presented an impediment to families seeking a religiously rooted education.
The documentary does not address separation of church and state, a principle derived from the First Amendment. It raises the question of what role religion should play in government and education, as well as what the intersection between these three spheres should be. Religious liberty can still be pursued with freedom from government participation, while allowing political control may set a dangerous precedent.
“Religious liberty in America means that religious institutions and their programs should be supported by the faith and generosity of parishioners, not government,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, in a report from the ACLU. “It is not ‘religious freedom,’ it is precisely the opposite – the proposed constitutional change takes away from each citizen the right to decide which churches, synagogues or mosques you wish to support, and it gives that power to the state, allowing the state to take your money and decide for you.”
The film is framed around Catholicism, posing an issue of equity, as it does not discuss how other faiths, such as Judaism, Islam or Buddhism, would be supported by the revocation of the Blaine Amendment. It also does not address underfunded public schools that accept all students, regardless of their views. While parents and children deserve freedom of choice for education, the film’s narrative needs more substance.