religious public school

America’s First Religious Public School Hits Legal Roadblocks

With both sides citing religious freedom, what would be the first religious public charter school in the United States met its initial challenge—a lawsuit filed by a group of faith leaders, parents and a public education nonprofit.

The school in question is St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School in Oklahoma City. On June 5th the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board approved an application submitted by the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City to establish the school.

The 3 – 2 school board vote came in the face of the state’s attorney general’s warning that establishing such a school would violate both state law and the state’s constitution.

Attorney General Gentner Drummond issued a statement shortly after the board’s vote reiterating the illegality of a publicly funded religious school, adding that it is “not in the best interest of taxpayers. It’s extremely disappointing that board members violated their oath 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.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, one of several groups representing the plaintiffs in the case, strongly denounced the vote.

“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,” it said in a statement. “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.”

On the opposite side, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt—who earlier this year signed into law a bill giving a tax incentive to parents sending their children to private schools, including religious schools—also invoked religious freedom, saying of the board’s vote, “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.”

The Rev. Lori Walke, senior minister at Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City and one of the plaintiffs in the case said she joined the lawsuit because she believes strongly in religious freedom.

“Creating a religious public charter school is not religious freedom,” Walke said. “Our churches already have the religious freedom to start our own schools if we choose to do so. And parents already have the freedom to send their children to those religious schools. But when we entangle religious schools to the government … we endanger religious freedom for all of us.”

Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State added, “We are witnessing a full-on assault of church-state separation and public education, and religious public charter schools are the next frontier.”

The charter school application from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma reads: “The Catholic school participates in the evangelizing mission of the Church and is the privileged environment in which Christian education is carried out.”