American Catholic Schools in Historical Context

Published April 1, 2005

Although they had already existed in America for more than two centuries, Catholic schools came into prominence in the late nineteenth century as Catholic immigrants found it difficult to integrate into America’s public schools.

In his book Market Education, The Unknown History, education researcher Andrew Coulson describes how the conflict between Catholics and Protestants over the appropriate worldview to teach in public schools sometimes escalated into violence.

In the “Philadelphia Bible Riots” of 1844, Coulson notes, a dispute occurred over reading the Catholic Bible in public schools. He writes, “thirteen people lost their lives and St. Augustine’s Church was burned to the ground.”

In 1875, Congressman James G. Blaine proposed a Constitutional amendment intended to prevent taxpayer support for Catholic schools. Although it failed narrowly along party lines in the U.S. Senate, many states that entered the union after 1875 incorporated similar language in their state constitutions.

After decades of such cultural tensions, the Third Baltimore Council of 1884, a meeting of American Catholic Bishops and other Catholic leaders, issued a decree that every parish would have a school of its own.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Catholic school enrollment was growing steadily, but opposition continued. For instance, Oregon passed a law requiring all children to attend public schools. A 1925 Supreme Court decision, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, struck down Oregon’s law, creating a legal precedent for parental choice in education that stands to the present day.

Although Blaine language (or wording similar to it) remains in 37 state constitutions today, the Supreme Court struck a blow to the root of Blaine in 2002, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. That decision, which some have likened in magnitude to the Court’s 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education, ruled it was not unconstitutional for children to attend religious schools (mostly Catholic schools in the Zelman case) with publicly funded vouchers.

— Brian L. Carpenter

For more information …

For more information on state constitutional Blaine Amendments, see

For more information on the history of Catholic schools or the National Catholic Educational Association, visit