FFRF case against S.C. officials for unconstitutional funding moves ahead

Henry McMasters

The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s case against the South Carolina state government’s proposed unconstitutional funding of a private Christian school is proceeding on course.

“The judge largely sided with our perspective,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The case will now move forward full steam ahead.”

“South Carolina won’t disburse a $1.5 million budget earmark awarded to a religious education nonprofit unless a court orders it to,” reports The State, South Carolina’s capital newspaper, on what happened in court on Thursday, Dec. 1. “Lawyers for the state comptroller general, treasurer and superintendent of education vowed Thursday to heed the court’s wishes while taking no position on the legality of the contested earmark.”

FFRF filed its lawsuit earlier this year 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 FFRF members, and Parker, who has children in the Greenville County Schools, is familiar with the purpose of Christian Learning Centers (the intended beneficiary organization) to evangelize students.

“The South Carolina Constitution prohibits public funds to be used to directly benefit any private educational institution (Article XI, Section 4),” read the legal complaint that the state/church watchdog has filed in the Court of Common Pleas in Richland County. “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).”

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.”

McMaster filed a motion to get himself dismissed from the case and to oppose the preliminary injunction against the $1.5 million funds being disbursed. FFRF filed a response to his motions last week. On Thursday, Judge Jean Toal, who formerly served as chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, denied McMaster’s motion to dismiss.

The South Carolina governor’s involvement gets to a deeper constitutional problem, as the Columbia, S.C., newspaper reports.

“Regardless of McMaster’s role in the process, the governor’s attorneys assert the state’s funding of Christian Learning Centers is permissible because the religious organization plans to use the money for secular purposes,” its article states.

Since it was announced that the state budget had earmarked $1.5 million for Christian Learning Centers, the ministry has issued conflicting announcements about what it would do with the taxpayer funds. Although the purpose of the earmark was to build a residential school for students to receive biblical instruction, the ministry soon claimed it never planned to build a school, later announcing it would build a charter school. FFRF wrote in its briefing that it is beyond comprehension how the organization, which according to its website, “exists to provide biblical instruction to school-aged children,” could legally operate a charter school.

Read more here.

South Carolina attorney Steven Edward Buckingham represents the plaintiffs, with FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott and FFRF Legal Fellow Karen Heineman serving as co-counsel.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 38,000 members nationwide, including hundreds of members in South Carolina. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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