HARLEM (or maybe not) -- Asked whether his brownstone residence is in Harlem, the Rev. Michel Faulkner says, well, that depends. "When something bad happens, the neighborhood is called Harlem. When something good happens, it is the Upper West Side." Faulkner is trying to make something good happen, but is opposed by a U.S. speaker of the House who died 114 years ago but whose mischief goes marching on.
Faulkner, 50, is an African-American who played defensive line for Virginia Tech and, briefly, the New York Jets. Recoiling from what he calls "the social and community chaos" he saw growing up in Washington's Anacostia section, and that he blamed on Lyndon Johnson's Great Society welfarism, Faulkner served as vice president for urban ministry at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. He left that sedate environment to minister to the down-and-out around Times Square, before its sinfulness had been scrubbed away.
Now he wants to create a charter school -- a public school enjoying considerable autonomy from, among other burdens, teachers unions. It would be affiliated with his New Horizon Church. But New York's Constitution has a Blaine Amendment.
Republican James G. Blaine came within 1,047 votes of becoming president. He lost New York, and hence the White House, by that margin to Grover Cleveland in 1884. New York's large Catholic population loathed Republicans after a Presbyterian clergyman, speaking in Blaine's presence, said the Democratic Party's antecedents were "rum, Romanism and rebellion."
Protestants resented the impertinence of Catholic immigrants who founded schools that taught Catholicism as forthrightly as public schools then taught Protestantism. Protestants thought a public school should be, in Horace Mann's words, a "nursery of piety" -- of Protestant piety -- dispensing "judicious religious instruction," judiciousness understood as Protestantism.
In 1875, Blaine, hoping anti-Catholicism would propel him to the presidency, unsuccessfully tried to amend the U.S. Constitution to stipulate that no public money shall go to schools "under the control of any religious sect." The pervasive Protestantism was not considered sectarian. Eventually 37 states passed similar amendments to their constitutions. Congress required Blaine provisions in the constitutions of new states entering the union.