State officials will withhold $1.5 million earmarked for a Christian nonprofit, pending a judge’s ruling on its constitutionality.
South Carolina residents brought a lawsuit against the state’s governor, treasurer, superintendent and comptroller general in response to the legislature’s appropriation of $1.5 million to Christian Learning Centers of Greenville County (CLC).
The organization, which already provides off-site “released time” religious instruction for public school students, initially intended to use the funds for a residential school that included biblical instruction. It now plans a public charter school for disadvantaged students.
Residents sought an injunction against the officials to prevent the earmark from being disbursed as litigation continues. However, lawyers for all defendants except the governor have promised to withhold the funds for now anyway, prompting Judge Jean Toal to deny the injunction.
The budget allocation was approved by Gov. Henry McMaster, who has been involved in prior litigation regarding the use of state funds. In 2020, the South Carolina Supreme Court unanimously ruled against his attempt to use CARES Act funds for private school tuition grants.
The residents in this lawsuit are represented by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which argues the earmark for CLC violates the South Carolina Constitution in two ways: by benefiting a private educational institution with public funds, and by violating the state’s provision against the establishment of religion, which mirrors the U.S. Constitution’s.
CLC is a nonprofit Christian organization that “exists to provide biblical instruction to school-aged children as an opportunity to encourage them to embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ, grow in the Christian faith, and apply biblical principles for living.”
After the lawsuit was filed in September, CLC announced its intent to fund construction of a charter school with the money. The plaintiffs argue this was not the group’s original asserted plan, and the complaint references initial plans to build the residential school.
“Christian Learning Centers has announced its intention to open a charter school, which is part of ‘the public school system,’” said attorneys for the governor, arguing the state’s allocation to CLC is legal. “Money being used for a charter school therefore cannot possibly be money that is ‘used for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.’”
Steven Edward Buckingham, attorney for the plaintiffs, contested CLC’s change of plans, claiming that it is “impermissible for anybody, be it a private religious institution or otherwise, to receive an appropriation from the state and then switch course.”
Perhaps hinting at her eventual ruling, Judge Toal has said it’s reasonable to assume CLC would offer religious instruction because “that’s all Christian Learning Centers does right now.”
The lawsuit is now in the “discovery phase,” in which both sides explore and share the evidence in the case.