Fresh off the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, allowing taxpayer-funded grants to benefit private religious schools, South Carolina is now giving away millions of dollars that can go toward Christian indoctrination.
This morning, SC Gov. Henry McMaster announced a new program called Safe Access to Flexible Education (SAFE), which offers families a one-time $6,500 grant for private education during the upcoming school year. The schools involved can be religious schools.
The $32 million program is part of a $48 million discretionary spending account McMaster’s office received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act).
The grants are intended for lower income families; a family of four would need to earn less than $78,600 to qualify. The first 2,500 grants will be given to anyone who wants them (and meets the requirements); the rest will be selected via a lottery program. But the money can be used for any independent school in the state… which is a fancy way to say parents can theoretically use up to $32 million in taxpayer money to fund their kids’ religious indoctrination.
The program requires “good standing” in certain accreditation programs, including the South Carolina Association of Christian Schools (which has 66 member schools) and the Association of Christian Schools International (28 schools). Other acceptable programs like the South Carolina Independent School Association have at least 50 schools affiliated with religion in their names. There’s some overlap here, but basically, any school that knows how to fill out basic paperwork can qualify.
Here’s why this goes beyond church/state separation alone: The SAFE Grants website says participating schools must not “discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin.” What they don’t say is that discriminating against LGBTQ people is perfectly fine. If a school refuses admission to students — or fires teachers — because they’re Jewish, or the wrong kind of Christian, or engaged to a same-sex partner, or transgender, that’s not a barrier to receiving this money.
Caroline Mala Corbin, a Professor of Law at the University of Miami who has written extensively on church/state separation, raised those very points to me before saying, bluntly, “No taxpayer dollars should be directed to entities that discriminate.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation pointed out that these grants would also be given to schools that lack any real accountability:
“South Carolina’s neovoucher proposal is another assault on the Constitution and the American principle of the separation of state and church,” says FFRF Co-President Gaylor. “Religious education should not be subsidized with public money. There is no governmental oversight of private religious schools and no accountability to the taxpayers who are subsidizing them. Our public schools are pluralistic institutions where all students are welcome regardless of their background or religion. Voucher schools are heavily segregated on the basis of religion. Voucher schools have few barriers to prevent them from discriminating in hiring or student admissions on the basis of religion, sexual orientation or disability. Where public money goes, public accountability ought to follow.”
At a time when public schools are struggling and there are open questions about the safety of bringing kids and teachers back in the buildings, it makes absolutely no sense to use the COVID crisis to shuffle millions of dollars into private religious schools.
The sad truth is this may be legally permissible, but it’s ethically reprehensible. Governors ought to be supporting public education in any way they can. McMaster has decided to be an obstacle for public schools instead.
(Thanks to Zach for the link)