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Private schools ask judge to bypass 'racist' laws with looming deadline for federal funds

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Rev. Robert E. Guglielmone, Bishop of Charleston (copy)

The Rev. Robert E. Guglielmone, who presides over the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston, speaks April 14, 2021, at Greenville's St. Anthony of Padua Catholic School in favor of a federal lawsuit challenging a provision in the South Carolina Constitution that bans public funds from supporting private schools. File/Anna B. Mitchell/Staff

GREENVILLE — The coalition of South Carolina religious and independent colleges suing the state for access to public funds is asking a federal judge to force the distribution of tens of millions of dollars in coronavirus relief aid before a looming deadline.

U.S. District Judge Bruce Hendricks will hear arguments May 5 in Greenville on the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston's request for a preliminary injunction to bypass what is known as the "Blaine Amendment."

At stake is as much as $34 million that Gov. Henry McMaster set aside in coronavirus aid for religious schools and historically Black colleges and universities, plaintiff attorney Daniel Suhr wrote in a request for a preliminary injunction.

The intervention is necessary now, Suhr argued, because a May 11 deadline looms when money must be spent before the federal government redistributes it to other states.

McMaster is technically a defendant in the legal action, along with the executive director and the budget director of the state Department of Administration.

The lawsuit has broader implications in the debate over school vouchers. In the coming year's budget proposal, McMaster included $14 million in lottery money to be allocated for private school vouchers. However, the ability to do so is in limbo after the state Supreme Court in December unanimously voted to block public funding to private schools.

In March 2020, the federal CARES Act provided discretionary funds to governors to provide education relief during the pandemic. McMaster attempted to give $32 million of the money to private schools on behalf of low- and moderate-income families.

The governor also dedicated $2.4 million to support online education access at the state's eight HBCUs.

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The lawsuit joins those colleges with the diocese and the 33 private schools it represents in challenging the state constitutional provision that bars public money from being spent on private schools.

The action takes aim at former prominent South Carolina politician Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman and the "Blaine Amendment," named after U.S. Rep. James Blaine.

Blaine joined with the American Protective Association to lobby for constitutional changes keeping funds from sectarian schools as part of a broader "anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic campaign," according to the lawsuit.

In 1895, led by Tillman, who was an avowed racist, the state's constitution was amended to achieve what the lawsuit argued is permanent disenfranchisement of Black people following the departure of federal troops after Reconstruction. Part of Tillman's stated goal was to equip Black people only for menial labor and prevent them from being educated, the suit alleges.

Tillman's cause "lined up nicely" with Blaine's campaign, the lawsuit states.

Today, according to the lawsuit, a Baptist food pantry, a Catholic hospital and Muslim mosque can all receive the federal aid, but not private schools.

Follow Eric on Twitter at @cericconnor.

Reporter/Local Editor

Eric is a reporter and local editor for The Post and Courier in Greenville. Previously with The Greenville News, he's covered the Upstate for two decades and served as a USA TODAY correspondent. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina.

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