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Tucked into page 443 of the South Carolina 2022-2023 budget is a $1,500,000 taxpayer-funded gift to the Christian Learning Centers of Greenville County. (It’s misspelled in the budget.)

The organization’s mission is to “provide biblical instruction to school-aged children.” For the past 25 years, it has also transported public school children to local churches for up to 90 minutes a day as part of a (legal) Released Time program in order to receive biblical indoctrination.

All of this raises the question of why the state government is giving it any money, much less a heaping ton of it.

The earmark was sponsored by Republican State Reps. Mike Burns and John McCravy, and was included in the budget after the Christian group’s CEO made a personal request to Gov. Henry McMaster.

According to The State, the money is earmarked to help purchase 10 acres of land to build a $14 million residential school for “disadvantaged and at-risk youth.” That goal is laudable. But we’re not talking about a group of Christians trying to help kids in need. It’s a group whose primary purpose is spreading a religious message. Everything else is secondary. For that reason, this gift to a faith-based group is blatantly illegal.

… the generous allocation of taxpayer dollars to Christian Learning Centers of Greenville County appears to violate the state Constitution, University of South Carolina law professor Derek Black said.

“If the state is cutting a check to an organization to build or finance the infrastructure of a private educational institution, that sounds like a pretty explicit direct contradiction of what the Constitution says,” said Black, a national expert in education law who directs the university’s Constitutional Law Center.

It’s not like this hasn’t happened before. In 2020, the South Carolina Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Gov. McMaster violated the state’s Constitution when he used $32 million in COVID relief funds to pay for vouchers to private religious schools. Specifically, the judges said he violated Article XI, Section 4 which says public funds cannot be used for “any religious or other private educational institution.”

So how is this new giveaway any different? Fundamentally, it isn’t. In fact, it’s even more explicit. The vouchers went to private schools, including religious ones; this giveaway just goes to one private Christian group for the purpose of religious indoctrination. Just because the intended targets are disadvantaged kids doesn’t change that. When a school effectively has a No Jews Allowed admissions policy, it shouldn’t be reward by the government.

That means if a lawsuit is filed over this funding, it would likely be successful. It’s not clear if anyone is filing a lawsuit yet.

The money also raises ethical questions about why a governor and a Republican legislature would steer all that cash to a private Christian organization to build a school when existing public schools are in desperate need of the help:

Catherine Schumacher, president and CEO of Public Education Partners in Greenville County, questioned the fairness of sending taxpayer dollars to a private school when so many public schools are in need.

“There are districts all over the state that could use $1.5 million to do significant facility upgrades … pay teachers more and provide mental health counselors to support student success,” said Schumacher, whose organization opposes vouchers and education savings account programs that divert taxpayer dollars to private schools.

There are so many reasons that the government should not be funding this program. But because South Carolina is dominated by Republicans, it’s possible they just assumed they could get away with sticking a gift for a Christian school in the budget.

At the very least, they have no plans of doing the right thing unless they’re absolutely forced to by state judges.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.