After lawsuit, South Carolina will no longer give $1,500,000 to Christian school
The budget earmark was an “explicit direct contradiction” of the state’s Constitution, according to one legal expert
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Last year, when Republican lawmakers in South Carolina released a draft of their 2022-2023 budget, there was a notable inclusion tucked into page 443: a $1,500,000 taxpayer-funded gift to the Christian Learning Centers of Greenville County. (It was misspelled in the budget.)
The organization’s mission is to “provide biblical instruction to school-aged children.” Their students are encouraged to “spread the news” in order to “ELECT JESUS.” (In all caps, no less.) For the past 25 years, it has also transported public school children to local churches for up to 90 minutes a day as part of a (legal) Released Time program in order to receive biblical indoctrination.
All of this raised the question of why the state government was giving it any money, much less a heaping ton of it.
The earmark was sponsored by GOP State Reps. Mike Burns and John McCravy, and was included in the budget after the Christian group’s CEO made a personal request to Gov. Henry McMaster.
According to The State, the money was earmarked to help purchase 10 acres of land to build a $14 million residential school for “disadvantaged and at-risk youth.” That goal sounded laudable, but let’s be honest: We weren’t talking about a group of Christians trying to help kids in need. It was a group whose primary purpose was spreading a religious message. Everything else was secondary. For that reason, this gift to a faith-based group was blatantly illegal.
… the generous allocation of taxpayer dollars to Christian Learning Centers of Greenville County appears to violate the state Constitution, University of South Carolina law professor Derek Black said.
“If the state is cutting a check to an organization to build or finance the infrastructure of a private educational institution, that sounds like a pretty explicit direct contradiction of what the Constitution says,” said Black, a national expert in education law who directs the university’s Constitutional Law Center.
It wasn’t like this was anything new. In 2020, the South Carolina Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Gov. McMaster violated the state’s Constitution when he used $32 million in COVID relief funds to pay for vouchers to private religious schools. Specifically, the judges said he violated Article XI, Section 4 which says public funds cannot be used for “any religious or other private educational institution.”
So how was this new giveaway any different? Fundamentally, it wasn’t. In fact, it was even more explicit. The vouchers went to private schools, including religious ones; this giveaway just went to one private Christian group for the purpose of religious indoctrination. Just because the intended targets were disadvantaged kids didn’t change that. When a school effectively has a No Jews Allowed admissions policy, it shouldn’t be rewarded by the government.
The money also raised ethical questions about why a governor and a Republican legislature would steer all that cash to a private Christian organization to build a school when existing public schools were in desperate need of the help:
Catherine Schumacher, president and CEO of Public Education Partners in Greenville County, questioned the fairness of sending taxpayer dollars to a private school when so many public schools are in need.
“There are districts all over the state that could use $1.5 million to do significant facility upgrades … pay teachers more and provide mental health counselors to support student success,” said Schumacher, whose organization opposes vouchers and education savings account programs that divert taxpayer dollars to private schools.
There were so many reasons for why the government should never have considered funding this program. But because South Carolina is dominated by Republicans, they seemed confident they could get away with sticking a gift for a Christian school in the annual budget.
The following month, however, four citizens, with the help of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, filed a lawsuit to put a stop to all this.
Due to the state’s $1.5 million award to a local Christian education institution, the plaintiffs, who identify as atheists, agnostics or secular humanists, feel like outsiders in the community, FFRF contends. They do not wish to subsidize any religious groups that indoctrinate students, including Christian Learning Centers. And the defendants’ financial appropriation directly contravenes the South Carolina Constitution.
That’s why the plaintiffs are asking for a judgment and order declaring that the financial appropriation violates Article XI Section 4 and Article I Section 2 of the South Carolina Constitution, a temporary restraining order and a permanent injunction enjoining the defendants from providing funds to Christian Learning Centers and an award of attorneys’ fees in the favor of the plaintiffs.
Over the course of the next several months, state officials attempted to have this case tossed out. Gov. McMaster argued they had no right to sue him because taxpayers had no legal standing in South Carolina (on that basis alone, anyway). He also said “his decision to sign or veto legislation is protected by legislative immunity.”
The Christian school even tried to avoid giving depositions. In fact, according to FFRF, on the same day an officer of that organization was scheduled to give a deposition, the school’s board “voted to abandon its plans… and withdraw its request to the Department of Education for the $1.5 million.”
Now, because of that withdrawal, a judge has effectively tossed the case out.
That means the situation has been resolved. The case is moot, therefore the taxpayers win.
Although an order from the court declaring the appropriation unconstitutional would have been the ideal resolution, this is a win for FFRF and its plaintiffs because an unconstitutional appropriation to a private religious organization to expand its mission of religious education was stopped.
“This was a blatantly Christian outfit that was unconstitutionally aiming to become the beneficiary of a huge public giveaway,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We were able to ensure with our lawsuit that this didn’t happen.”
The downside here is that there’s no judgment on the merits of the case. No punishment for the Republicans attempting to give all that taxpayer money to a religious school. No depositions or resolutions on the legal questions that ought to be answered.
But, in a place like South Carolina, a court avoiding those questions rather than giving unfavorable answers might be all you can hope for.
Ian Whatley, one of the plaintiffs in this case, called this result a “win” in an email, but he worried that it wouldn’t be long before the state tried again to use taxpayer dollars to prop up religion. That said, he didn’t regret joining this particular case, despite the potential dangers. He also urged others to be watchdogs in their own communities:
When I first considered being named as a plaintiff, I took careful stock of the risks. I decided I would probably have to deal with some social media heckling and maybe even property damage. I'm pleasantly surprised to report no problems…
If someone sees their state (schools, city councils, planning boards, Governors and so on) doing things that favor one religion over others, or that are prejudicial to a particular group, such as Nones, they should take notes and pictures, screen grabs and samples of literature. Check with a group such as FFRF or Americans United if what you noticed is an illegal practice… If you are afraid of the consequences, and I know some people have been bullied in school or at work for daring to challenge pro-religious bias, make FFRF or AU aware of the problem and ask if they can help without your name being used.
That tracks with my understanding, too. Whatley’s courage helped put a stop to this problem in a deeply red state. If success can happen there, it can happen everywhere.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)