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FFRF files lawsuit against S.C. funding of religious school

The Freedom From Religion Foundation on Sept. 20 filed a major lawsuit against South Carolina officials on behalf of four Palmetto State citizens challenging the unconstitutional funding of a private religious school.

“An upstate Christian organization that’s raising money to build a $14 million residential school for disadvantaged and at-risk youth has a surprising benefactor: the state of South Carolina,” reports the daily newspaper of Columbia, the capital city. “In a move that legal scholars say raises constitutional questions, state lawmakers included a $1.5 million earmark in this year’s budget to help Christian Learning Centers of Greenville County get its new school off the ground.”

FFRF’s assessment goes beyond what the publication describes: The funding is not only questionable, it is downright unconstitutional. 

“The South Carolina Constitution prohibits public funds to be used to directly benefit any private educational institution (Article XI, Section 4),” reads the legal complaint that the state/church watchdog filed in the Court of Common Pleas in the Fifth South Carolina Judicial Circuit. “Additionally, the South Carolina Constitution contains an Establishment Clause that mirrors the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which prohibits the General Assembly from making any ‘law respecting an establishment of religion’ (Article I, Section 2).”

The case is being filed on behalf of four South Carolina taxpayers — Christopher Parker and Ian Whatley, both Greenville County residents, and Gere Fulton and Michael Brown, both Richland County residents — against defendants South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, Treasurer Curtis Loftis Jr. and Education Superintendent Molly Spearman. Three of the plaintiffs are members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Parker, who has children in the Greenville County Schools, is familiar with the intent of Christian Learning Centers to evangelize students.

Christian Learning Centers of Greenville County is a private religious educational institution whose mission is to “provide biblical instruction for public school children at no cost.” Its faculty is a “group of Christ-centered educators who have a passion for teaching and sharing God’s Word with our youth,” to quote the organization itself. Students are encouraged to “spread the news” to others to “ELECT JESUS.” For 25 years, the Christian group has provided biblical release-time instruction to students in Greenville County schools. Two private Christian colleges in Greenville County — North Greenville University and Bob Jones University (infamously fundamentalist) — also have ties to Christian Learning Centers, as The State newspaper reports.

The organization announced plans to build a residential school in Greenville County, and its CEO Janice Butler sent a proposal for building the “state-of-the-art residential school” to the South Carolina governor in May of this year. The South Carolina appropriations bill for 2022–23 now includes a $1.5 million handout to the organization in a measure co-sponsored by state Reps. Mike Burns and John McCravy. 

“The South Carolina appropriations bill for 2022-23 violates the South Carolina Constitution, as well as the rights of all citizens and taxpayers of the state of South Carolina, including plaintiffs and those who are similarly situated,” asserts FFRF’s complaint.

McMaster’s similar attempts in the past to fund private religious entities have fallen afoul of the courts.

“South Carolina’s Constitution expressly prohibits the state from directly funding religious or other private educational institutions, and the state Supreme Court has, as recently as two years ago, upheld that prohibition,” reports The State newspaper. “In the 2020 case, Adams v. McMaster, the state’s highest court found unanimously that the governor’s plan to use $32 million in federal COVID-19 relief money to provide tuition grants for students to attend private schools violated the state Constitution.”

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.

FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott and FFRF Legal Fellow Karen Heineman are co-counsel on the case with South Carolina attorney Steven Edward Buckingham.