March 2023 Church & State Magazine - March 2023

AU Tells Okla. Education Officials Not To Permit Religious Charter Schools

 

Americans United is urging the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board to disregard an incorrect opinion issued by former Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor that would allow public charter schools to indoctrinate their students in religion — in violation of the separation of church and state. 

On Jan. 31, AU sent board members a letter and a 24-page memo with nearly 150 citations to U.S. Supreme Court cases, Oklahoma law and other authorities demonstrating that O’Connor’s opinion is wrong and a radical departure from well-established law.

AU urged the board to disregard O’Connor’s opinion “and deny any applications [it] may receive to operate a charter school that provides religious education.”

O’Connor’s opinion, issued on Dec. 1, 2022, a month before he left office, wrongly claims that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires Oklahoma to allow charter schools that teach a religious curriculum or even indoctrinate children into a religion. 

AU’s Upton tells Okla. board to reject religious charter school

AU refutes this mistaken conclusion, explaining, “Far from violating the U.S. Constitution, the requirement in state law that Oklahoma charter schools provide nonsectarian education is mandated by the Constitution.

“Reclassifying charter schools as private actors,” AU asserted, “would be a sea change in the law that would upend the entire educational landscape in Oklahoma. It has always been the understanding of lawmakers, the government, and charter schools themselves that they are public schools and subject to the U.S. Constitution.” 

AU also notes that a 2007 Oklahoma Attorney General opinion affirmed that charter schools are “part of the public school system.”

The issue arose in Oklahoma after reports surfaced that the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City planned to apply to operate a virtual charter school called St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. If the board were to approve the archdiocese’s charter, it would be defying centuries of precedent and establishing the first public religious charter school in the country.

Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Kenneth Upton, a native of Oklahoma and an Oklahoma City University School of Law alumnus, testified before the board Feb. 14. Upton explained that O’Connor’s opinion misinterprets the nature of charter schools and is a radical departure from well-established law that defines them as public schools that must provide secular education and be open to all students.

“Oklahoma charter schools are prohibited from teaching religion, sponsoring prayer, discriminating based on religion, or otherwise promoting religion or coercing students to take part in religious activities,” Upton testified. “Yet St. Isidore makes clear in its application that it intends to do all of these things — running the school ‘as a Catholic School,’ which they make clear is a ‘place of evangelization.’”

As this issue of Church & State was going to press, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond issued an opinion withdrawing O’Connor’s directive. The O’Connor opinion, Drummond said, “misues the concept of religious liberty by employing it as a means to justify state-funded religion.”

In other news about taxpayer aid to religious schools:

  • Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) has signed a massive new school voucher bill into law. Under the program, the state will offer “educational savings accounts” worth nearly $7,600 during the first year. The money will be used chiefly to pay for private school tuition.

The program, which includes no income restrictions, will cost $345 million per year when fully implemented.

Republicans who control the state House and Senate used procedural tactics to choke off debate and push the measure through the legislature. The Des Moines Register reported that in the Senate, for example, Republicans invoked a procedural rule that prohibited Democrats from offering any amendments.

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