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Freedom of religion. Freedom of the press. Two of America’s most cherished constitutional rights enshrined in the First Amendment, protecting them from political interference.
Let’s add a healthy dose of government involvement.
That is what is presently percolating in Washington. This coming week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments about Maine’s so-called Blaine Amendment. Meanwhile, the Democrat’s “Build Back Better” bill proposes a $1.7 billion tax credit for local news outlets.
The “Blaine Amendments” are a vestige of a bigoted time in our nation’s history. Their inspiration, Maine’s own James G. Blaine, was Speaker of the House in Washington, a U.S. senator, secretary of state and failed presidential candidate.
The laws passed in numerous states prohibited the expenditure of government funds on any religious educational institution. They arose during a time of heated anti-Catholicism and survive on the books today.
That is why they are in court.
Maine has some unique aspects compared with other states in the Union. We have a tradition of “town academies,” which are private institutions to which towns pay tuition in lieu of providing a high school. Think Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield or Thornton Academy in Saco.
Other municipalities are “school choice” towns. They do not have schools of their own, so they let families choose where their students can go. For example, Raymond is one. Ninth graders from that town could attend Windham, or Waynflete, or Westbrook.
But they could not go to Catholic schools like St. Dominic’s or Cheverus (full disclosure: I’m a class of ‘02 graduate and now serve on the board of trustees). Because of Maine’s Blaine Amendment.
Turn to the other part of the First Amendment: freedom of the press.
It is no secret that local news outlets are facing dire financial straits. The revenue streams of newspapers — most notably print advertising — have been upended by the internet. However, journalists, administrative staff and others who work for them still (rightly) want to be paid. Making it all work is a challenge.
That is why Democrats have included “local news tax credits” in the “Build Back Better” bill.
If passed, it would be a massive change in the fabric of our nation. After all, the entire reason freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution is to empower news organizations to hold the government accountable, even if they fail miserably, like the CNN-Chris Cuomo debacle. It is hard for a journalist to ask tough questions when their paycheck relies on tax credits.
Further, the IRS has inappropriately targeted disfavored groups in the past. If a journalist hits a little too close to home, it isn’t hard to imagine their employer being “randomly” selected for an invasive audit.
Both the Blaine Amendment and “Build Back Better” deal with government policy directly impacting the funding of organizations that are constitutionally protected from government interference.
In the case of the Blaine Amendment, religious schools are singled out for a prohibition on funds that are otherwise generally-available to other private schools.
With the “local news tax credits,” news organizations are singled out for special, positive treatment from the taxman.
It is probably time for the Blaine Amendments to be removed from the books. Government cannot discriminate against religion. And as long as dollars are permitted to flow to private schools from a “school choice” town, they should flow equally at the students’ election.
The “local news tax credits” are a bit different. News organizations are businesses, and they should participate in generally available business programs. But having Washington kite checks changes the dynamic precipitously.
So instead of tax credits, Mainers who value local news — like the august Bangor Daily News — should show that value with a subscription. And give reporters the ability to keep a close eye on Augusta. There is a lot going on; some of it is even worth hearing about.
Thank goodness for the First Amendment.