When Nevada’s lawmakers met in the first state legislature following statehood, they already knew that the Virginia City orphanage established by the Catholic Sisters of Charity was serving a vital need for the region.
Not only had residents of the booming Comstock city made that clear through their actions, but Virginia City businessmen had shown up with a petition. They said their original hope that the Asylum could be funded with local contributions had faded due to “the general depreciation of the business interests of this section of the State.”
Most Nevada lawmakers endorsed the proposal, but a minority was more resistant.
The Senate Committee on State Affairs visited the asylum, filed a report on the general conditions found there, and recommended passage of the requested appropriation.
The Committee of Ways and Means, on the other hand, recommended against, arguing that the funds might largely go into training the children in Catholicism, and into “defraying the ordinary current expenses” of the asylum, thus encouraging its future dependence on state appropriations.
Although the bill eventually passed both the Assembly and the Senate, it was vetoed by Governor Henry G. Blasdel. His said the state constitution forbad donations of money to any entity other than “corporations formed for educational or charitable purposes,” and that the asylum was not so incorporated.
By the next session of the legislature, in 1867, however, the Sisters of Charity had incorporated the orphanage, and — though some lawmakers still protested the financial support — a majority in both chambers voted to appropriate $5,000.
It was, said the legislation, “to provide for fostering and supporting the Nevada Orphan Asylum, a duly incorporated institution, located at Virginia City.”
This time, Governor Blasdel signed the bill into law.
A feature of the new legislation was that it authorized counties throughout the state to send to the now-state-affiliated orphanage “any white child or children under twelve years of age” who’d been left parentless while residing in the state.
In the following session, in 1869, legislation for a new state-owned and state-managed State Orphan Home was introduced, and to purchase or build a facility for it in Virginia City $8,000 was appropriated. Another $7,000 was authorized for the support, in the new home, of “full orphans” only — no “half-orphans.”
At the same time, lawmakers appropriated $6,000 for continuing support of the sisters-run Nevada Orphan Asylum.
By 1871, the State Orphan Home was in operation, and had received $20,000 in state funds. For the sisters’ older Nevada Orphans Asylum, the sum of $5,000 was appropriated.
Opponents become politically active
In the 1873 session, an asylum-funding bill was again introduced, only to be withdrawn at the request of Sister Frederica, leader of the local Sisters of Charity.
She said — according to Butler’s historical essay on the Virginia City mission — that she believed the asylum lacked support for further funding, adding that, “of late, a hostile feeling has risen against [the orphans]. If we are not entitled to the appropriation in justice, we do not look for it in charity,”
Enemies of the asylum, she said, had approached legislative candidates and told them they would not be supported in the election unless they opposed further funding for the Asylum.
It was evidence, she believed, of a growing anti-Catholic sentiment. And indeed, Butler notes that:
In the 1870s a spate of concern over the dangers of Catholicism surfaced in the organization of a local branch of the virulently nativist group, the American Protestant Association, which found grist for its mill in the Vatican's pronouncement of papal infallibility.
Nevertheless, the 1873 legislature again passed funds to assist the asylum. Lawmakers also agreed that orphans being housed in the asylum at state expense could be transferred to the State Orphan Home “at any time desired by the Trustees of the Nevada Orphan Asylum.”
Although the asylum appears to have received no state assistance in 1875, funds were authorized in the next three sessions — even though the Legislature, at the same time, was also preparing a state version of the Blaine Amendment that had failed to pass out of the U.S. Congress.
One of the first Congressional proponents of denying funding to “sectarian” schools had been a Nevada U.S. Senator, William Stewart, in 1871. But it was four years later, when President Grant joined in the cause, that it gained critical momentum.
Speaking at a convention in Iowa, Grant urged Americans to encourage “free schools” — by which he actually meant state-run schools where children’s attendance was compulsory and funding came from compulsory taxes — and “resolve that not one dollar … shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian schools... [so that] every child growing up in the land [would have] the opportunity of a good common school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistical dogmas.”
Three months later, in December 1875, Grant asked Congress to consider a formal amendment making such schools “the duty of each of the several States to establish and forever maintain,” while also
…forbidding the teaching in said schools of religious, atheistic, or pagan tenets; and prohibiting the granting of any school funds, or school taxes, or any part thereof, either by legislative, municipal, or other authority, for the benefit or in aid, directly or indirectly, of any religious sect or denomination....
Only at the end of his life, in his personal memoirs, did Grant admit what had long been suspected: that he himself had been an initiated member of the Know-Nothings from even before the Civil War.
Just a week after President Grant’s message to Congress, his proposal was taken up by Congressman — and soon-to-be-U.S.-Senator — James G. Blaine, of Maine, who introduced what would later be known as the proposed “Blaine Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution.
The proposed amendment’s inherent complexities and constitutional problems eventually sank it in the Senate. But its core notion — “protection” of America from Catholics — already had massive political support from frightened and mistrustful Protestants. Multiple American states had already passed, or would soon pass, constitutional amendments that used the code word “sectarian” to describe persons and institutions to be barred from government funding that would be available to everyone else.
As multiple historians have documented, this was a repudiation of the original pattern of American education in the colonial period and early years of the republic. Schools then were neither wholly public nor wholly private, but were instead largely voluntary efforts, aided sporadically by government grants.
As noted earlier, that had also been the initial pattern in Virginia City. Nevertheless, Silver State legislators joined the Blaine Amendment bandwagon.
It is not clear why, as the state legislature was allocating funds to the sisters’ orphan asylum in 1877 and 1879, it was also, during those same years, preparing for the 1880 general-election ballot a “Little Blaine” constitutional amendment. First, and then a second time — as required by the state constitution — the lawmakers passed the draft amendment.
Endorsed by Nevada voters in the fall of 1880, it then became Section 10 of Article 11 of the Nevada Constitution, stating:
No public funds of any kind or character whatever, State, County or Municipal, shall be used for sectarian purpose.
Apparently, most Nevada legislators saw no contradiction between Section 10’s terms and their practice of allocating assistance to the Sisters of Charity orphanage.
They apparently agreed with the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in Virginia City, which had noted that the government-run State Orphan Home was full and that costs to the state were less if it housed remaining orphans at the Sisters of Charity asylum than if it sent them to shelters out of state.
The Enterprise also argued that:
It is no appropriation of money for a sectarian purpose and by no fair construction can be so esteemed. It is simply a matter of bread and clothes for the children of Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and others who had no religion but whose children need protection….
Accordingly, in the next — 1881 — session of the state legislature, both chambers once again passed, and Nevada Governor John Henry Kinkead for the second time signed, legislation to help defray costs at the sisters’ orphanage.
This time, however, when the orphanage’s bill for services rendered came before State Controller James F. Hallock, he refused to pay it, citing Article 11’s new Section 10.