CHARLESTON, South Carolina — Private schools and colleges asked a federal judge Monday to strike down the provision in South Carolina’s constitution that bars public money for private and religious schools, saying the 1895 measure is discriminatory.
The Catholic Diocese of Charleston and South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities filed the lawsuit last month. The state Supreme Court has blocked Gov. Henry McMaster’s efforts to share COVID-19 relief money with private schools or private school parents, citing the state constitution.
Daniel Suhr, an attorney for the plaintiffs with the Washington, D.C.-based Liberty Justice Center, told U.S. District Judge Bruce Hendricks on Monday in Charleston that the amendment is blocking historically Black colleges and universities and Catholic schools from receiving “fair, equitable access” to the money.
“South Carolina has come a long way since 1895,” Suhr said, according to The Post and Courier. “But though the state has come a long way, its past is with us still.”
The provision is one of a number of “Blaine Amendments” imbedded in state constitutions, named after Maine Republican James Blaine, who advocated for them in the late 1800s as a way of blocking public money from going to Catholic schools. Federal courts have struck down some of the state measures in recent years.
The plaintiffs are pushing for a temporary injunction, saying the schools could lose up to $34 million in federal funds if the court doesn’t act by May 11.
Hendricks promised a ruling in the “next couple of days.”
During the hearing, Suhr said he realized it’s “no small thing” to ask the court to remove an amendment from the state constitution. He urged the judge to help South Carolina move beyond the “mistakes of its past.”
McMaster, the executive director of the state Department of Administration and the state budget director are defendants.
McMaster, who disagrees with the state Supreme Court decision, wanted to spend $32 million for private school tuition grants, plus give eight historically Black colleges $2.4 million to aid online education.
But McMaster’s lawyer, Thomas Limehouse Jr., said the governor will enforce the law and that the plaintiffs have no legal right to money being distributed at the governor’s discretion.
“We’re all now stuck with (the Supreme Court’s) decision,” Limehouse said.
Plaintiffs argue the 1895 South Carolina Constitution ended up with the provision because South Carolina governor and later U.S. Sen. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman’s “racial bigotry lined up nicely with other delegates’ anti-Catholic bigotry,” leading to the bar on taxpayer money going to religious institutions.
A Baptist food pantry, a Catholic hospital and a Muslim mosque can all receive taxpayer-funded COVID-19 relief, but not a school or university affiliated with any of those religions, plaintiffs said.