Wednesday, 7 June 2023

Oklahoma Approves Nation’s First Religious Charter School

 Oklahoma approved the first religious charter school in the U.S. on Monday.

In a 3-2 vote, The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board approved St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, a charter school to be funded by taxpayers and run by the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, on Monday.  

St. Isidore, named after the patron saint of the internet, will include religious instruction in its curriculum with a mission to “educate the entire child: soul, heart, intellect and body.”  

Set to begin in late 2024, the school will offer online classes to around 500 students in kindergarten through grade 12.  The school will receive an estimated $23.3 million in state funding for its first five years, according to the BBC.

Top state Republicans have disagreed on whether a religious charter school was allowable.

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt praised the board’s “courage to approve the authorization for St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. 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.” 

Oklahoma’s Republican attorney general, Gentner Drummond, released a statement saying the school’s approval was “contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers.”  


Drummond said the board members “violated their oath in order to fund religious schools with our tax dollars” and “exposed themselves and the State to potential legal action that could be costly.”

In February, Stitt expressed his “strong disagreement” with a nonbinding opinion released by Drummond opposing the school.  Drummond’s predecessor, John O’Connor, released a conflicting opinion, supporting the school.

Section II-5 of the Oklahoma State Constitution prohibits public money from being “directly or indirectly” used for the “use, benefit, or support,” of churches, religious institutions, and ministers.  

The school is likely to face legal challenges. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State announced a legal challenge within minutes of the board’s vote. The ACLU also announced plans to challenge the school’s constitutionality on Tuesday, stating, “Our public schools must be free from religious indoctrination and open to all students.”

Americans United’s president, Rachel Laser, stated, “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.”  

The U.S. Supreme Court delivered two decisions in 2020 and 2022 expanding states’ ability to indirectly fund religious schools through voucher programs. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that while states are not required to support religious education, states cannot exclude religious schools if they choose to fund private schools. 

As reported by the New York Times, supporters of the board’s decision apply a similar argument, contending that excluding religious schools from charter funding would violate their rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

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