A federal court in South Carolina has turned back an effort to nullify a portion of the state constitution that bars taxpayer funding of religion.

The lawsuit’s origins go back to 2020, when South Carolina Gov. Hen­ry McMaster (R) attempted to award taxpayer funds to private schools under a pandemic relief program. A lawsuit was filed and the South Carolina Supreme Court blocked the effort, noting that the South Carolina Constitution contains a provision that bars direct taxpayer funding of religious and other private educational institutions.

This “no-aid” clause is one of many prohibitions against state funding of religious education found in about three-fourths of all state constitutions. They reflect a concern, common during the colonial era, that no one should be compelled to pay for the propagation of someone else’s religion.

Frustrated by their inability to get their hands on the public purse, the Bishop of Charleston and South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities filed a lawsuit asserting that the no-aid provision is discriminatory and bigoted. In court, they were represented by a Chicago-based libertarian group called Liberty Justice Center.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks ruled that the South Carolina state officials defending the case should prevail without a trial. Hendricks didn’t provide reasoning for the ruling but said a full opinion will come later. (Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, arguing that South Carolina is under no obligation to fund religion.)

Advocates of school vouchers and other forms of taxpayer aid to religion often argue that state no-aid amendments are products of late 19th century anti-Catholicism. In fact, many of these provisions are much older and were put in place to protect people from compulsory support for religion via taxation.

On its “Wall of Separation” blog. AU pointed to the words of James Madison, who in 1785 wrote, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”

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