Legal, political and faith-based opposition is mounting against Oklahoma’s action clearing the way for the nation’s first religious charter school.
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State announced preparations are under way for legal action after the Oklahoma Virtual Charter School Board voted June 5 to approve the launch of St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa.
“State and federal laws are clear: Charter schools are public schools that must be secular and open to all students. No public school family should fear that their child will be required by charter schools to take theology classes or be expelled for failing to conform to religious doctrines,” AU President Rachel Laser said. “And the government should never force anyone to fund religious education. In a country built on the principle of separation of church and state, public schools must never be allowed to become Sunday schools.”
National religious leaders warned that a religious school paid for with taxpayer funds would erode faith freedoms.
“Funding private religious schools with public dollars violates core legal principles protecting religious freedom for all,” said Holly Hollman, general counsel and associate director of Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, during a recent episode of BJC’s “Respecting Religion” podcast.
“It’s bad for the people of Oklahoma. In fact, it was opposed by a wide range of groups, including pastors and religious leaders in Oklahoma, advocates for public schools and members of the charter school movement as per the early reporting,” Hollman said.
The idea also was opposed by Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond, according to television station KOKH in Oklahoma City. “It’s clearly unconstitutional and disappointing. We have three rogue actors on the school board that although well informed that approving the charter application by St. Isidore would violate the Oklahoma and federal Constitution, they did it anyway.”
Drummond said he, too, will be taking action, the station reported. “I have a duty. I swore to the Constitution to uphold that, and so this office will lead that charge to uphold the Constitution.”
But the religious charter school has strong political allies in the state, including Gov. Kevin Stitt and state Superintendent of Schools Ryan Walters.
“I applaud the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board’s courage to approve the authorization for St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School,” Stitt said in a June 5 news release. “This is a win for religious liberty and education freedom in our great state, and I am encouraged by these efforts to give parents more options when it comes to their child’s education.”
As the faith-based charter school application was being discussed late last year, then-state Attorney General John O’Connor, who is Catholic, issued a non-binding opinion that it is unconstitutional for the state to withhold funds from sectarian schools and other religious institutions.
Catholic and other conservative religious groups in the state have been emboldened by a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that ended or at least weakened longstanding legal precedent around constitutional principles such as the separation of church and state, BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler said.
“Those pushing for the approval for this religious charter school, including the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, have said they are pushing the limits of recent Supreme Court rulings when it comes to public funding of private religious education,” she explained.
While the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa amended the application after its initial rejection over constitutional questions, the updated version that was approved did not change the fact St. Isidore of Seville will be run as a Catholic school based on Catholic teachings, Americans United said in a June 2 letter to Oklahoma education officials.
In addition to using a religious curriculum, the school also would use discriminatory admissions and hiring practices to screen for sexual orientation, gender identity, religion and other factors. Altogether, the operation of the school will violate Oklahoma’s Charter Schools Act and constitution and the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, AU warned.
“It’s hard to think of a clearer violation of the religious freedom of Oklahoma taxpayers and public school families.”
“It’s hard to think of a clearer violation of the religious freedom of Oklahoma taxpayers and public school families than the state establishing the nation’s first religious public charter school,” Laser said. “This is a sea change for American democracy. Americans United will work with our Oklahoma and national partners to take all possible legal action to fight this decision and defend the separation of church and state that’s promised in both the Oklahoma and U.S. Constitutions.”
U.S. faith leaders, meanwhile, continue the barrage of warnings against policies that erode the separation of church and state.
“Oklahoma’s decision to greenlight the nation’s first religious charter school opens the floodgates for taxpayer-funded discrimination and sullies the constitutional tenet that religion and government remain separate,” Interfaith Alliance President Paul Brandeis Raushenbush said.
“With public schools under relentless attack by Christian nationalists, it has never been more important for people of faith and conscience to stand up for students. Every child deserves the right to be safe, accepted and respected at school, regardless of who they are or what they believe,” he added.
“Oklahoma has now set a dangerous precedent that threatens students, teachers and taxpayers. Taxpayer money should never be used to fund religious instruction and it is now up to the state to at least ensure St. Isidore abides by the federal nondiscrimination protections guaranteed in public schools.”
KOKH reported that Drummond is concerned about other precedents. “Now granting the Catholic charter, if there’s a satanic application, we have to grant it. If there’s a Sharia law applicant, we have to grant that. I think although Oklahomans, in general, would support any Christian activity, this is not about Christian and non-Christian, this is about the rule of law.”
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