Diocese files suit over anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment

Miscellany/Doug Deas: Students at Charleston Catholic concentrate on their work in this file photo from 2019.

SOUTH CAROLINA—The Diocese of Charleston has joined with a coalition of independent colleges and universities in South Carolina to file a federal lawsuit that seeks to strike an amendment from the state’s constitution.

The amendment prevents public funds from being used to fund non-public schools. The amendment is known as a “Blaine amendment,” named after 19th-century congressman James G. Blaine, who championed constitutional amendments to keep public funds from religious schools. The South Carolina amendment in question was designed to prevent public funds from assisting Catholic schools, whose focus on educating African-Americans in the years after the Civil War upset segregationists.

The lawsuit claims that the amendment has allowed discrimination to go on in the state for generations because it has unfairly caused education funding to be withheld from religious and independent schools in the state, including Catholic schools and historically black colleges and universities.

The lawsuit was brought by attorneys from the Liberty Justice Center, a national public interest law firm concerned with constitutional rights and educational opportunity.

The suit claims that the state’s Blaine Amendment has been used to prevent religious and independent schools in South Carolina from having access to federal funds meant for COVID-19 relief.

In 2020, Gov. Henry McMaster dedicated $32 million of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funds to a new initiative called Safe Access to Flexible Education (SAFE) grants, which would have provided assistance for low- and moderate-income families who needed support to help their children stay in or move to private schools during the pandemic.

Students in schools from the Diocese of Charleston would have benefited from these grants. The governor also allocated $2.4 million in GEER funds to support online education and upgrades at the state’s eight historically black colleges and universities, six of which are private, religiously-affiliated schools.

The South Carolina Supreme Court struck down the SAFE grant program and also suspended the funding for the six religiously-affiliated HBCUs, citing the state’s Blaine Amendment.

The lawsuit was filed April 14 in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, Columbia Division. The plaintiffs maintain that getting rid of the Blaine Amendment would allow students at these religious schools access to the COVID-19 relief funding and also overturn decades of discrimination caused by the amendment.

Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone of the Diocese of Charleston said the lawsuit is a way to confront both “racist and anti-Catholic history engrained in our state’s Constitution.”

As an example, Bishop Guglielmone cited the historic example of a Catholic school in Charleston closing after an angry mob threatened to hang the bishop for allowing African-American students to enroll there in 1835.

“The Blaine Amendment has a dark history, and it is exploited today by groups and politicians to deny critical aid to our most vulnerable children and families in South Carolina,” Bishop Guglielmone said. “The Diocese of Charleston is asking a federal court to confront this history and strike this language from our state’s constitution. We are proud to stand with our partners to condemn the past and make our future stronger and brighter.”