Two Fiftieth Anniversaries Swallowed by History

Edd Doerr

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of two important occurrences now largely out of the public eye: New York State’s last Constitutional Convention and subsequent referendum and the outbreak of Nigeria’s civil war. As both had important church-state separation implications, they are very much worth reviewing now.

New York’s Con-Con

Central to New York’s 1967 Constitutional Convention was the effort to weaken the state constitution’s Article XI, Section 3, which banned direct or indirect tax aid for church-run private schools. The ban dates to 1894, when it was approved by a vote of 108 to 73. With President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and many state and federal Republican lawmakers keen on promoting vouchers and other gimmicks to divert public funds to sectarian and other private schools, New York’s experience is pertinent.

Advocates of tax aid for church schools dominated the election of convention delegates. But when push came to shove, New York voters rejected the proposed constitution by 72 percent to 28 percent. Let’s look at the background of the issue.

When public-school development took off early in the nineteenth century, our country was overwhelmingly Protestant. To accommodate the diversity of Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Unitarians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, and others, the public-school system compromised on mandated nondenominational (King James) Bible readings and often government-mandated prayer. This was not acceptable to the surge of Irish Catholic immigrants. (As a student in Catholic schools decades ago, I had daily religion classes and prayer in school but no Bible reading.) So the Catholic Church went all out to build parochial schools and to seek public funding for them.

After the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution to, among other things, extend the Bill of Rights to cover state governments. In 1873, however, the Supreme Court in the Slaughter-House Cases largely gutted this meaning, a misstep it did not begin to correct until the twentieth century. So, in 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant recommended amending the Constitution to bar all tax aid to church-run schools. The amendment, introduced by Senator James G. Blaine (R-Maine), passed the House overwhelmingly but fell slightly short of the needed two-thirds in the Senate. Even so, three-fourths of the state constitutions prohibit tax aid to church schools. These provisions are called “Blaine amendments” by advocates of school vouchers, though the Jefferson/Madison-inspired First Amendment was passed decades before Blaine was born. Significantly, the constitutions of Alaska and Hawaii, admitted to the Union after World War II, contain strong anti-aid sections. Voters in Alaska (1976) and Hawaii (2014) defeated efforts to divert public funds to sectarian private schools.

In 1965, Catholic schools enrolled 5.5 million students, but this number soon began to shrink. Today, it has under two million. Why? President Richard Nixon, who favored vouchers, commissioned studies by Notre Dame University and (Catholic) Boston College, which found that the decline was due to “changing parental preferences,” not economics. The real reason for the decline, I believe, is that the Supreme Court’s early-1960s rulings against mandated school prayer and Bible reading (Engel, Schempp, etc.) ended nearly all of the remaining but diminished Protestant hegemony in public schools, thus rendering them generally acceptable to Catholics. Also, the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) reduced Catholic isolationism, as did John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960.

School desegregation in the 1960s stimulated the opening of evangelical private schools, a move furthered by economist (and atheist!) Milton Friedman’s development of the school-voucher idea.

New York’s 1967 referendum is only part of this story. Between 1966 and 2014, there have been twenty-eight state referenda on school vouchers, tax credits, and other devices for diverting public funds to religious and other private schools from Massachusetts to California and from Florida to Alaska in which many millions of voters rejected these efforts by an average of two to one. In Betsy DeVos’s home state of Michigan, voters turned down vouchers by an average of two to one in 1970, 1978, and 2000. In addition, the annual Gallup education poll in 2015 registered opposition to these proposals at 57 percent to 31 percent.

So what is wrong with vouchers and other devices for diverting public funds to private schools? Here is a brief summary: (1) they violate the religious liberty of all taxpayers by compelling them to support religious institutions they would not support voluntarily; (2) they violate our constitutional church-state separation principle in the First Amendment and most state constitutions; (3) they divert public funds from already underfunded religiously neutral public schools that serve 90 percent of our kids, which in thirty-five states have already seen an average per student fund cutback of 7 percent since 2008; (4) they fragment the student population along religious, ideological, ethnic, ability level, socioeconomic status, and other lines; (5) in many cases, they support private schools that denigrate women’s rights of conscience and the science of evolution and climate change; (6) they undermine the teaching profession; (7) on balance, recent studies have shown that vouchers for private schools offer no improvement over regular public schools.

Nigeria’s Civil War

Nigeria’s civil war erupted in mid-1967 with the attempted secession of the country’s Eastern Region, calling itself Biafra. With the escalation of American involvement in the Vietnam conflict, Americans paid little attention to events in far-off Africa. As I was involved in the matters in New York State discussed above and busy working at Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), Nigeria was also far from my mind.

What finally got me involved was my then seven-year-old daughter calling my attention in mid-1968 to a letter dated early 1957 from a humanist friend in Nigeria, Ernest Ukpaby, that described Catholic Church activity in the Eastern Region unfriendly toward public schools. Ukpaby wrote of boasts of the Region becoming a Catholic state. I had read the letter in 1957, shortly before I moved to South America to teach. I had met Ukpaby, a graduate of Brown University, at a conference in St. Louis in the early 1950s and subsequently arranged for him to speak in Indianapolis on Kenya’s Mau Mau crisis. We became friends and corresponded after he returned to Nigeria and became a school official in the Rivers area of the Eastern Region.

My AU colleague Gaston Cogdell and I began researching the Nigerian conflict. Nigeria’s embassy was located only one block from our office, a mile or so north of the White House. We became acquainted with Ambassador Joe Iyalla. We found that Nigeria’s public relations efforts were small and ineffective, while Biafra’s benefited from massive involvement of Catholic Church leaders and institutions. There was growing talk of U.S. intervention in the conflict to aid Biafra.

After weeks of delving into the issue from every angle, I presented our findings to the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and to Senator Edward Kennedy. Late that fall, Cogdell and I got the Nigerian embassy to provide a speaker for the AU annual conference to be held in New York in January of 1969. We insisted that the speaker be a cabinet member and a Catholic, because no one else would have credibility. The speaker was Joseph Tarka, the transport minister and a Catholic. I had dinner with him and Ambassador Iyalla when he flew in, and I gave him some notes I had written to help him relate to an American audience. His speech in New York got media attention. The war ended in January 1970.

As the civil war was far too complicated to detail here, let me just quote my letter published in the October 22, 1969, issue of the mainstream Protestant magazine, Christian Century:

H.W. Turner’s “Religion in Nigeria’s Conflict” (Sept. 10) provided valuable insights into that tragic civil war, but in concentrating on the problems caused by Islam in Northern Nigeria it passed over those caused by Catholic action in Eastern Nigeria.

In January 1957 a prominent Ibo educator wrote me from the Rivers area that a movement was in full swing to make Eastern Nigeria (Biafra) a Catholic state. Eastern Nigeria is the largest Catholic stronghold in Africa, as Vietnam was and is in Asia. Before the 1966 coup that area endured many clashes over Catholic opposition to universal primary (public) education and growing Catholic control over education. By 1965 over half of all schools in Eastern Nigeria were tax-supported Catholic schools—used, as Bishop Mark Hurley of Los Angeles has written, as “instruments of evangelization.”

On January 11 of this year, at a conference on Biafra at Catholic University in Washington, Fr. Raymond Kennedy, an Irish priest high in Biafran circles, told me that the Jan. 16, 1966, coup led by Catholic army officers that began the tragic chain of events occurred immediately after the Eastern regional parliament had approved [a] measure that would convert the Catholic schools to public schools. Some observers believe that this measure had a lot to do with the coup. In the Dec. 7 and Dec. 14 issues of Britain’s leading Catholic paper, the Tablet, Tom Burns, the editor, wrote that “the influence of the [Catholic] Church throughout the whole land [Biafra] is, however, out of all proportion to its numbers,” and that Col. Ojukwu, a Catholic, “has chosen to use this religion as a rallying cry for resistance and an appeal to the outside world.”

In December 1968 Archbishop Aggey and two other Nigerian bishops went to Rome “to protest to Pope Paul about the purported involvement of the Church in Nigerian civil war” (New York Post, Dec. 2, 1968). On Jan. 29, 1969, Joseph Tarka, Nigerian transport commissioner and one of the country’s top Catholic laymen, told the 21st annual US Conference on Church and State that his and other churches in Nigeria had subverted religion and humanitarianism to political ends. And, as Stanley Meisler, the Los Angeles Times man in Africa, has confirmed, the Roman Catholic Church has been serving as Biafra’s public relations right arm.

The evidence suggests that the Vatican is going all out to protect its missionary investment in Eastern Nigeria—the largest it has in Africa—and that elements within that church have been trying to make that area a Catholic state. Clericalists helped get us into Vietnam; we should be careful lest clericalist interests get us to send Green Berets to Africa.

Readers who want to delve further should read the best and most comprehensive book I have read on the matter, John J. Stremlau’s The International Politics of the Nigerian Civil War 1967–1970 (Princeton University Press, 1977).

The preceding commentary is not intended as criticism of Catholics in general, who come down on every side of every issue, but rather of the clerical leadership at the top. Which brings us to….

JFK at 100

May 29, 2017, was the centennial of the birth of John F. Kennedy, our only Catholic president. Kennedy, in contrast to the present occupant of the White House, was informed, knowledgeable, eloquent, gracious, compassionate, and presidential, while Donald Trump is the opposite. Kennedy was a strong supporter of public education, religious liberty, and church-state separation, and he was opposed to the diversion of public funds to faith-based private schools; Trump is the reverse. Kennedy had no problem with U.S. government aid for family planning; Trump is the reverse. Kennedy made our country look better; Trump does the reverse.

Who could forget Kennedy’s ringing speech on September 12, 1960, in Houston: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the president . . . how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote—where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference. . . . (W)here no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace. . . . I would not look with favor upon a president working to subvert the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty.”

Johnny, we miss you. Donnie, we’d like to miss you.

Let me recommend Albert J. Menendez’s superb 1979 book, John F. Kennedy: Catholic and Humanist (Prometheus Books).

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.


This year is the fiftieth anniversary of two important occurrences now largely out of the public eye: New York State’s last Constitutional Convention and subsequent referendum and the outbreak of Nigeria’s civil war.

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