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SC Supreme Court hears arguments over governor putting money toward private schools

The Governor announced in July that he was pledging $32 million from CARES Act funding to help pay for students’ tuition at private schools.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments Friday over whether Gov. Henry McMaster's plan to use federal CARES Act funding for private schools is lawful.

The Governor announced in July that he was pledging $32 million from CARES Act funding to help pay for students’ tuition at private schools. It’s called the SAFE Grants Program.

Just days after the announcement, a lawsuit was filed against him by the South Carolina Education Association and the Orangeburg County School District

Justices took up the case and had a hearing on Friday.

RELATED: Judge dismisses 'State of South Carolina' from SAFE Grant lawsuit

"This isn’t a question of policy, it’s a question of power," Skyler Hutto, attorney for the educators, said while addressing the justices.

He argued that this case is about preserving the constitution. "Can the state void constitutional prohibition on funding private education? And has the state subverted its commitment to public education?" He asked.

Their argument is that it’s unlawful to give CARES Act federal funding to private institutions.

Respondents for Governor McMaster said the SAFE Grants don’t directly benefit private schools, instead they benefit families that need financial help.

But Hutto disagreed, "it’s been our position that it’s no doubt going to benefit private schools. If you give money to a private school it’s going to spend money the same way it would any other way."

RELATED: State lawmakers debate state budget, coronavirus relief spending

Thomas Limehouse, the attorney for Governor McMaster at the hearing, said the private school funds do not violate the constitution:

"The SAFE Grants Program does not in anyway diminish the amount of money that the General Assembly appropriates on an annual basis to South Carolina public schools and it does not in anyway subtract from, or limit, the hundreds of millions of dollars of other CARES Act funds that are currently available for South Carolina public schools."

McMaster spokesperson Brian Symmes said in a statement to News19:

"The governor is confident in the legality of the SAFE Grants Program and wouldn’t have created the program if he wasn’t… The governor believes in empowering parents to make decisions as to how their children are educated and that the economic hardships brought on by a global pandemic shouldn’t impact their ability to do that."

Now that the Supreme Court judges have heard both arguments, they’ll decide whether McMaster can move forward with his plan. 

It’s unclear when the court will announce their decision.