“Pitchfork” Ben Tillman was a virulent racist who, as governor of South Carolina and as a U.S. Senator in the late 19th century, openly praised the disenfranchisement and lynching of African-Americans. He also capitalized on the anti-Catholic sentiment of the day, angry that Catholic institutions and schools founded by Northern missionaries were serving former slaves.
So Tillman called a new state constitutional convention in 1895 and had drafted for South Carolina a thoroughly racist constitution. He ensured that South Carolina would be one of ultimately 36 states with a “Blaine Amendment.” Riding on a current of anti-Catholic sentiment in 19th century America, the Blaine amendments forbade states from directing funds to independent and religious schools.
Flash forward to the 21st century and the recent coronavirus pandemic. In South Carolina, as elsewhere, parochial and private schools were managing to stay open while many public schools struggled. Nearly three dozen Catholic parochial schools and eight historically Black colleges planned to use access to state grants to provide schooling for more South Carolina children.
They soon learned that no good deed goes unlitigated. When the application by these schools was challenged in state court, what law did the opposing counsel base their case upon?
South Carolina’s Blaine Amendment, put in place by “Pitchfork” Ben.
With a Blaine Amendment in the state’s constitution, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the private schools could not access these grants.
Now the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston, which covers 33 K-12 schools, and the South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities – which represents 20 institutions, including five historically Black colleges and universities – are mounting a federal lawsuit calling for the removal of the Blaine Amendment from the state constitution. They are aided in their lawsuit by the Liberty Justice Center, a public interest law firm in Illinois.
Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone of Charleston announced the lawsuit, which states the Blaine Amendment, “born of bigotry and prejudice, based on race and religion… violates the equal protection and free exercises clauses of the U.S. Constitution.” A victory by these schools would expunge the legacy of “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman and provide a new avenue to quality education for low-income and minority children.