Americans have long debated whether the Establishment Clause permits the government to support education that includes religious instruction. Current doctrine permits states to do so by providing vouchers for private schools on a religiously neutral basis. Unlike most Establishment Clause doctrines, however, the Supreme Court did not build this one on a historical foundation. Rather, in cases from Everson v. Board of Education (1947) to Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (2020), opponents of religious-school funding have claimed American history supports a strict rule of no-aid.
Yet the Court and scholars have largely ignored a practice that casts light on the historical understanding of the Establishment Clause: from the Revolution through the Civil War, the federal government partnered with missionaries to educate Native American students. At first ad hoc, the practice became a full-scale program with the Civilization Fund Act of 1819. Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all actively participated. Intriguingly, no one objected to the partnerships on constitutional grounds. This is the first Article to place this practice in its cultural, political, and constitutional context, to consider its implications for the intellectual and political history of disestablishment, and to wrestle with its potential implications for contemporary church-state doctrine.
Nathan S. Chapman,
Forgotten Federal-Missionary Partnerships: New Light on the Establishment Clause,
Notre Dame L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/ndlr/vol96/iss2/5