If you didn’t know better, you might think that racism and anti-Catholicism are alive and well among several groups purportedly dedicated to rooting out just that sort of prejudice.
In an eyebrow-raising move, lawyers at Georgetown University, a Catholic institution, teamed up with the NAACP, the civil rights group defending black Americans, against a Catholic diocese and a group of Catholic and historically black colleges in South Carolina.
The groups took up this awkward position after 21 independent colleges and universities joined the Catholic diocese of Charleston in filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against part of the state constitution, which they say wrongly deprived them of essential COVID relief last year. The diocese runs 33 Catholic K-12 schools.
The NAACP’s South Carolina arm, represented by Georgetown lawyers, filed a motion to intervene in the case in June, arguing that public schools should be prioritized for relief funds. A federal judge, however, threw out the NAACP’s bid to insert itself and become a party in the case.
The case centers around two pots of COVID relief money that the diocese and a group of private colleges, South Carolina’s Independent Colleges and Universities (SCICU), say they missed out on.
The first pot is South Carolina’s $25 million program that provided grants between $2,500 and $50,000 to nonprofits for pandemic-related costs. The other chunk of COVID aid is $32 million in CARES Act funding that Republican Gov. Henry McMaster allocated for one-time, needs-based tuition vouchers of up to $6,500. Those grants would allow parents to send their kids to Catholic or other private schools if they desired.
As part of the relief, the governor had also planned to give $2.4 million to historically black colleges for pandemic-related costs like updating their technology for remote classes. He ended up withholding the money once legal challenges were launched.
The lawsuit from the schools comes after the state Supreme Court struck down the governor’s tuition voucher program last year. The suit that led to that decision was brought by a coalition that included the South Carolina Education Association, an affiliate of the largest public school teachers’ union in the country.
Deepening the irony of the NAACP and its Georgetown legal team’s attempt to get involved, they cited and defended the state’s archaic Blaine Amendment, which has a history steeped in anti-Catholicism and racism. The amendment prohibits the state from giving “direct aid” to religious or other private schools.
“No money shall be paid from public funds nor shall the credit of the State or any of its political subdivisions be used for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution,” the South Carolina state constitution reads.
The diocese and colleges countered in court documents that the Blaine Amendment “was born in bigotry and prejudice based on race and religion” and “violates the equal protection and free exercise clauses of the U.S. Constitution.”
The history of Blaine Amendments in the U.S. is long and ugly. They rose in the late nineteenth century across the country and were adopted in 38 state constitutions, part of a wave of anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment that gained momentum as more immigrants arrived in the U.S. from Catholic countries like Ireland, Poland, and Italy. As Catholic schools began to multiply in the country, a movement grew to prevent public funding being siphoned away from public schools to Catholic schools.
The origin of South Carolina’s Blaine Amendment has another layer of bigotry. It was added to the state’s constitution after the Civil War to choke off funds going to the Catholic schools that were educating newly freed slaves. The South Carolina Constitution of 1895 was infamous among southern Reconstruction era constitutions for introducing a literacy test for voting. A literacy test, however, would not stop former slaves from voting as long as Catholic missionaries were teaching them how to read. Over a century later, the amendment is still on the books in South Carolina, albeit in a slightly modified form.
“We are here to stand up for children and families across South Carolina and to face head on the anti-Catholic and the racist history in our state’s constitution,” Charleston Bishop Robert Guglielmone said.
Blaine Amendments have been challenged in recent years, including in a high-profile Supreme Court case last year that scrutinized Montana’s version of the amendment. In his concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito detailed the bigoted history of Blaine amendments, saying they were “prompted by virulent prejudice against immigrants, particularly Catholic immigrants.”
“So you’ve got Georgetown – Catholic Jesuit institution – spending money to fight Catholic schools. And you’ve got NAACP filing a lawsuit to stop money from going to historically black colleges. That is how much these people hate school choice,” Liberty Justice Center attorney Daniel Suhr, who represents the private colleges, told The Daily Wire.
“Both the NAACP and Georgetown have to minimize prejudice against their own communities historically in order to make their argument in favor of stopping school choice,” added Suhr, who is a Georgetown law graduate himself. “It’s just disappointing and sad. It’s this really cynical use of this provision that’s been on the books for a century because it’s convenient to advance their political agenda.”