Lawyers representing two private school groups have asked a federal judge to temporarily prevent South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster from spending his discretionary coronavirus aid money amid a lawsuit seeking to overturn part of the state’s constitution.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Charleston on April 14, challenges part of the South Carolina Constitution that prevents private or religious institutions from receiving public funds directly.
Attorneys representing the Bishop of Charleston and the independent colleges and universities of South Carolina filed the lawsuit several months after the state Supreme Court upheld its ruling, the governor’s attempt to sell private K-12 schools $ 32 million – To give dollars to CARES Act money, to decline.
As a result of the decision, the governor was also unable to spend $ 2.4 million that he had allocated to historically black colleges and universities in the state.
The governor reallocated the funds after the Supreme Court upheld its decision in December, and a governor’s attorney said much of it had already been sent to other groups. About $ 12 million was spent on the Department of Juvenile Justice, $ 4.9 million on the Department of Social Services on nursing programs, and about $ 9 million on charter schools, including agencies.
The governor has until May 11, 2021, or one year after receiving federal aid, to allocate the money before it expires.
Listed as defendants in the lawsuit are McMaster, Executive Director of the South Carolina Department of Administration, Marcia Adams, and Brian Gaines, Director of Treasury for the South Carolina Department of Administration.
In a virtual injunction hearing Monday morning, a McMaster attorney said the governor was disappointed with the Supreme Court decision but obliged to obey it.
“Governor McMaster doesn’t like it any more than the plaintiffs, but he also respects the rule of law and has a duty to uphold it,” said Attorney Thomas Limehouse Jr .. “Asking a federal judge to prohibit a governor from spending discretionary funds is a bridge too far. “
Limehouse said although McMaster originally allocated the money to private schools, plaintiffs have no legal right to it as it is part of the $ 48.5 million he received from the governor’s coronavirus relief fund for emergency relief.
Daniel Suhr, an attorney for the Liberty Justice Center who represents the plaintiffs, argued that the section of the constitution that prevents direct aid to private schools discriminates against religious and private, historically black institutions. Suhr compared the lawsuit to a Montana Supreme Court case last year, Espinoza et al. v. Montana et al.
“Although the state has come a long way, its past is still with us,” said Suhr. “That Blaine change at the center of today’s case is a relic of that earlier era, but today it prevents historically black colleges, universities, and Catholic schools from getting fair and equitable access to COVID aid.”
Eugene Matthews, an attorney representing Adams and Gaines in the lawsuit, said the case was different from Espinoza’s in that the state does not allow direct public aid to private institutions regardless of race or religion.
“The difference is obvious and clear,” said Matthews. “The Supreme Court itself said, and that is what impressed me the most, the state does not have to subsidize private education, but once the state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools simply because they are religious. And the provision in question doesn’t do that. “
U.S. District Judge Bruce Hendricks, who heads the case, said she would make a decision on the restraining order in the next few days.
Ariel Gilreath is a watchdog reporter who focuses on educational and family issues with The Greenville News and Independent Mail. Contact her at [email protected] and on Twitter @ArielGilreath.