Oklahoma School Board Approves First Religious Charter School

On Monday, an Oklahoma school board voted to authorize the nation’s first religious charter school, generating outrage and doubts about the constitutionality of using taxpayer funds to subsidize a religious school.

In a 3-2 decision, Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board accepted a plan to establish St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School.

“We are elated that the board agreed with our argument and application for the nation’s first religious charter school,”  Following the judgment, Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, stated.

“Parents continue to demand more options for their kids, and we are committed to help provide them,” he continued.

The path for this Catholic school is far from complete, as many people oppose the idea of a charter school funded by taxpayers and private donations and operated by a religious organization. Opponents claim that it violates the separation of church and state.

The organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State condemned the ruling on Monday, calling it an infringement of religious freedoms.

“It’s hard to think of a clearer violation of Oklahoma taxpayers’ and public-school families’ religious freedom than the state establishing the nation’s first religious public charter school,” the group said, calling the decision “a sea change for American democracy.”

Oklahoma School Board Approves First Religious Charter School

“State and federal law are clear: Charter schools are public schools that must be secular and open to all students,” stated Americans United. The group claims to be planning legal action.

Though some religious schools receive government funding, the New York Times says the proposed St. Isidore school would be entirely government-funded.

Supporters of the school contend that charter school legislation varies by jurisdiction and that while a religious charter school may be illegal in certain areas, it is legal in Oklahoma. Some saw Monday’s ratification as a victory for religious liberty.

While school choice is popular among conservatives, senior Oklahoma authorities are divided. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) praised the ruling on Monday, calling it a “win for religious liberty.”

“This is a win for religious liberty and educational 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,” Stitt said.

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond (R) termed the ruling unlawful and “disappointing,” claiming that approving any publicly-funded religious institution violates state law.

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“It’s extremely disappointing that board members violated their oath in order to fund religious schools with our tax dollars. In doing so, these members have exposed themselves and the State to potential legal action that could be costly,” Drummond added.

Even those the religious charter school might have thought of as friendly to the decision have come out against it.

“This decision runs afoul of state law and the U.S. Constitution. All charter schools are public schools and as such must be non-sectarian.

Charter schools were conceived as, and have always been, innovative public schools that provide an alternative for families who want a public school option other than the one dictated by their ZIP code,” Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, stated.

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The Catholic charter school has already overcome some obstacles, as its application was initially denied in April. Still, the school was allowed to correct some of the identified flaws in the application.

Regarding legal threats, the school is not afraid of them but instead wishes to embrace them.

“We’re not surprised by the threat of a lawsuit, but we’ll be ready if they do,” Farley added. “This question must be resolved by the courts, possibly by the US Supreme Court.”

Those favoring religious charter schools hope the conservative-majority Supreme Court will be more sympathetic to their argument, especially following earlier favorable verdicts for religious schools.

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