In 2020, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) attempted to award taxpayer funds to private schools under a pandemic relief program. A lawsuit was filed, and the South Carolina Supreme Court blocked the effort.
South Carolina’s constitution contains a provision that bars direct taxpayer funding of religious and other private educational institutions. It is one of many prohibitions against state funding of religious education, known as “no-aid” clauses, that are found in about three-fourths of the state constitutions. They reflect a concern, common during the colonial era, that no one should be compelled to pay for the propagation of someone else’s religion.
Frustrated by their inability to get their hands on the public purse, the Bishop of Charleston and South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities filed a lawsuit asserting that the no-aid provision is discriminatory and bigoted. In court, they were represented by a Chicago-based libertarian group called Liberty Justice Center.
Here’s some good news: A federal court has tossed the lawsuit. In an order issued last week, U.S. District Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks ruled that the South Carolina state officials defending the case prevailed without a trial. Hendricks didn’t provide reasoning for the ruling but said a full opinion will come later. (Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, arguing that South Carolina is under no obligation to fund religion.)
Advocates of school vouchers and other forms of taxpayer aid to religion often argue that state no-aid amendments are products of late 19th century anti-Catholicism. In fact, many of these provisions are much older and were put in place to protect people from compelled support for religion.
As James Madison put it in 1785, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”
Madison and other framers understood that it’s a fundamental violation of the right of conscience to force someone to pay for the propagation of a faith they do not accept. They also knew that religion does best when it relies on voluntary support, not money coerced from our wallets by the government.
South Carolina’s no-aid provision, like the language found in so many other state constitutions, protects those principles. It’s good to see it upheld yet again.