South Carolina Catastrophe

Although the South Carolina legislature doesn’t officially convene until January 13th, it has already pre-filed an onslaught of bills that could violate the separation of church and state.

Education

Senate Bill 24 would create tax incentives that allow parents to deduct the amount spent on private school tuition from their state income taxes. Parents who educate their children at home are also allowed to deduct homeschool expenses. In addition, the bill would allow a tax credit for contributions made to “scholarship” organizations that provide tuition for children to attend private schools. Another bill, House Bill 3072, would also provide similar tax credits for contributions made to nonprofit “scholarship” funding organizations.

Though these provisions are drafted as “tax incentives” they are really different kinds of school vouchers.  They all forgo taxpayer dollars that should go towards our public schools and allow them to flow to private schools instead.

Senate Bill 72 would allow students to be released from public school classrooms to receive religious instruction at a private school while still receiving public school class credit. This bill is problematic in many ways. It could lead to students feeling pressured to receive religious education, particularly by enticing them with class credit. And, by granting this exemption from classroom time only for religious education, the bill gives religion special preference. A similar problematic and unnecessary bill passed in Ohio last year.

Marriage Equality

A federal court ruling recently made same-sex marriage legal in South Carolina. This has ignited an array of pre-filed bills that attempt to limit this right in various ways.

Senate Bill 116 would allow a government clerk to deny a same-sex couple a marriage license if the clerk objects to it for religious reasons. The bill would protect the government employee from any retaliation for doing so, such as “dismissal, suspension, demotion, discipline, or discrimination.” This is similar to the recently-announced North Carolina bill that would allow government magistrates to refuse to perform marriages that violate their religious beliefs. Of course, government employees should be prepared to serve everybody equally regardless of their personal beliefs, and these clerks should not be able to refuse to issue a license for a same-sex marriage just as they should not be able to refuse a license for an interracial marriage. AU provided a legal memorandum on this subject earlier this month.

Some proposed anti-marriage bills go even further. House Bill 3022 would prohibit any taxpayer or public funds to go towards activities related to the licensing and support of same-sex marriage, as well as prohibiting government employees from recognizing, granting, or supporting these unions. Another, Senate Concurrent Resolution 31, would call for a constitutional convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to establish that marriage is only the union of a man and a woman.

House Bill 3150 extends past government officials. It would prohibit the government from penalizing any individual or entity that refuses to provide goods and services in connection with a same-sex marriage. This law has the potential to interfere with local ordinances in some of South Carolina’s major cities that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. At AU, we believe that if a business owner isn’t prepared to provide a service for all, that person should not enter the service industry. As laid out in a New York Times article this week, we are now seeing this issue emerging across the country with bakers, florists, event halls, inns, and photographers refusing to provide services for same-sex couples.

Thankfully, there is at least one pre-filed bill supporting marriage equality: House Joint Resolution 3135 would amend the South Carolina Constitution by removing the article that states that the only domestic union recognized is between one man and one woman.

Legislative Prayer

Senate Bill 233 is likely a reaction to the Supreme Court case Greece v. Galloway. The bill reaffirms the ability of state and local government bodies to start a meeting with a prayer or invocation given by religious leaders, chaplains, or a public official. Although the bill notes that invocations should not proselytize or coerce participation, it does not go far enough to protect those of minority beliefs and it is clear from the bill’s language that its purpose is to reinforce the presence of legislative prayers, rather than create more inclusive, nonsectarian invocations.

To make matters worse, Senate Bill 127 would amend South Carolina’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to prohibit restrictions on the free exercise of speech or religion during any locality, municipality, county, or other state instrumentality proceeding.

AU’s legal guidelines on legislative prayer point out that there are many important limits that should be put on these practices. South Carolina’s bills on legislative prayer would fall far short of these guidelines. To get involved with Operation Inclusion, AU’s campaign to ensure diversity and inclusion at local government meetings in light of the Greece v. Galloway decision, check out the Action Kit.

Anti-Sharia Law Ban

Senate Bill 101 would prevent South Carolina courts from enforcing foreign law. Although this bill does not mention Sharia law specifically, the bill is motivated by anti-Muslim animus and a manufactured fear that Sharia law is being implemented in the United States and South Carolina. Read more about the origin of anti-Sharia bills here.

Student Groups Discrimination

Senate Bill 210  would exempt religious student organizations at public universities from anti-discrimination policies. It would require that the public institution recognize and fund religious student groups even if they discriminate against fellow students based on religious belief when determining membership and leadership. Religious student groups already have the same unburdened free exercise, speech, and access rights as other student groups. Therefore, like any other student group, they should not be granted special preference, nor should they have the right to force a public university to subsidize their discriminatory policies.

AU is gearing up for a challenging year with bills like these not only in South Carolina, but all around the country. To stay up to date, sign up for action alerts.