Directing public funds to religious schools

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South Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature last week took a step closer to amending the state constitution to directly fund religious and private schools. Opponents raised concerns about how this would affect the public school system, and a Democrat introduced a move during the debate to repeal the Heritage Act provision.

On the same day, the fledgling Hate Crimes Bill garnered bipartisan support and was pulled out of committee to go to the floor.

It’s the very same 2021 bill that died in the Senate for including LGBTQ protections. John McCravy state legislator R-Greenwood was the only legislator to vote against in committee.

Let’s dive into what happened.

A possible ballot initiative that will ask SC voters whether public funding for religious schools should be allowed

In another chapter in the state’s history of funding private religious schools, House Speaker Murrell Smith introduced R-Sumter on Feb. 28 at H.3591. If adopted, SC voters may find the following question when voting during the 2024 federal election:

“Must Section 4, Article XI of this state’s constitution be repealed to remove the ban on the state or its political subdivisions from directly supporting religious or other private educational institutions?”

Smith began introducing this bill with a history lesson.

The current provision is an evolved idea of ​​a US legislature from the late 1800s. In 1875, Speaker of the US House of Representatives James Blaine attempted to amend the US Constitution and ban states from funding religious education. Blaine failed at the national level but succeeded at the state level when 36 states adopted versions of his amendment and codified them into their constitutions. In South Carolina, an attempt to institutionalize a ban on religious school funding was led by Benjamin “Pitchfork” Tillman.

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More: The shocking story of Ben Tillman and how South Carolina still honors the violent racist

Many of the Blaine changes stemmed from sectarian tensions between Catholics and Protestants. When waves of Irish and Italian immigrants swept into the United States in the late 19th century, unsettled by the Protestant influence in public schools, Catholic parents opened their own schools. Protestants saw this and were concerned that the government might fund these schools and Catholicize American education, especially as several Catholic schools also admitted children of newly freed slaves.

Each state passed different versions of these changes. Some prevented direct public funding of only religious educational organizations, while others targeted all religious organizations or restricted them to only indirect funding, where states could find third parties to act as a channel for funding.

South Carolina banned all forms of funding for private religious schools until 1973. That year, in a post-segregation world when public schools were racially integrated, lawmakers amended the law to allow the use of indirect avenues such as voucher programs or scholarship funds to fund religious private schools with taxpayers’ money.

More: Desegregation, 50 Years Later: Voices and Stories of School Integration in Greenville SC

Smith said the proposed move will undo what remains of a bigoted past and make other funding-related policies adamant about legal challenges.

His arguments in defense of the bill stemmed from the 2020 Supreme Court ruling in which the Supreme Court blocked Gov. Henry McMaster from channeling federal COVID-19 aid money into private colleges and schools. Judges ruled that McMaster violated the state constitution.

The 2020 decision put other grant programs at risk, Smith said. Currently, the state has tax credit programs, scholarships, and proposed voucher laws that direct money to religious or other private schools. Repealing the provision would make these programs watertight against future litigation.

Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun, questioned whether there was a real need to repeal the provision since all of the programs Smith mentioned indirectly funded private schools and therefore fell under state law.

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“We’re making the issue today,” Ott said. “That was never an issue, Mr. Smith, because it was never questioned. We now assume that it might one day be challenged in court, so we’re going to change the constitution.”

Smith then brought up a legal battle from last year. The state newspaper reported in 2022 that lawmakers earmarked $1.5 million for a Christian learning center in Greenville. Local residents then sued the government for violating the state constitution. The case is still pending in the courts.

“What you’re saying is we’re all letting the courts decide it’s our ability,” Smith countered. “If we know we have constitutional problems, if we have legal problems, then we have to bring that up and deal with it and not just hope it never happens.”

Assemblyman Joseph Jefferson, D-Berkeley, who served on the Berkeley County School Board for 11 years, was concerned about how this could affect public schools. Every year, Jefferson said, a school choice debate surfaced. Parents sending children to schools of their choice may have led to some public school closures because everyone wants to put their children in the last school built, Jefferson said.

Jefferson also asked, while the state is trying to increase all education network salaries, be they teachers, cooks, or bus drivers, what assurance can Smith give that he has sufficient funds to continue funding public schools?

MP Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, tabled an amendment on the ballot to also repeal the Homeland Security Act.

Bamberg said the protection of Confederate memorabilia came at the time the Blaine Amendments were being codified in the state constitution.

“Everything is intertwined. All testimonies in court [committee] on the bill itself addressed racism,” said Bamberg. During the committee process, specific reference was made to South Carolina’s 1895 constitution, which was created after the Civil War and contained the state’s original Blaine Amendment, Bamberg said.

The House passed Bill 83-27.

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As Rep. JA Moore remembers the victims of the Mother Emanuel shooting

Interview with South Carolina State Representative JA Moore at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, Wednesday, June 22, 2022.

Jessica Gallagher, Greenville News

The hate crime bill is due to go into debate in March

South Carolina and Wyoming are the only two US states without hate crime laws. But the legislature wants to change that.

The Hate Crimes Act, named for the late Senator Clementa C. Pinkney, who died in the massacre of Mother Emanuel Church by white supremacist Dylann Roof, would increase penalties for a violent crime if they were motivated by bias or prejudice against a Individual or group based on the victim’s race, color, religion, sex, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, or physical or mental disability.

More: They lost loved ones in a mass shooting in Charleston. Now they are fighting to stop the next one

A hate crimes law could extend a person’s conviction to up to five years and a fine of no more than $10,000. Prosecutors would have to build a case and prove that the perpetrator’s actions were biased in order to justify the hate crime charge. Twenty members of the Judiciary Committee voted in favor, three did not vote and one Upstate state legislator, John McCravy, R-Greenwood, said no.

What to watch for in SC Politics this week:

On March 7, 2023, an hour and a half after the House debate adjourned, a House Committee will hear a public hearing on Bill H.3870, which would allow the Narcotic Treatment Program, or “NTP,” to safely administer methadone or other narcotic treatments to administer medication.

On March 7, 2023, 15 minutes after the Senate debate adjourned, a Senate committee will hear two bills (S.0392 and S.0576) that would limit foreign opponents’ (e.g. China) property in the state to 1000 acres.

Devyani Chhetri reports on the South Carolina State House and is a watchdog for the SC government. You can reach her at [email protected] or @ChhetriDevyani.