September 2023 Church & State Magazine - September 2023

Not OK! Sooner State officials have approved the nation’s first religious public charter school. Americans United and its allies plan to stop it.

  Liz Hayes

When Americans United and allies announced a new lawsuit to challenge the creation of the nation’s first religious public charter school in Oklahoma, AU President and CEO Rachel Laser made clear the fight is about much more than one school in one state.

“We are bringing today’s lawsuit to protect the religious freedom of Oklahoma public school families and taxpayers and to stop Christian Nationalists from taking over our public schools across the nation,” Laser said during a media briefing on July 31, the day the lawsuit was filed.

“Religious public charter schools are one piece of a larger Christian Nationalist agenda to infuse Christianity into public schools,” Laser continued. “We’re witnessing a full-on assault on church-state separation and public education and religious public charter schools are the next frontier.”

Americans United was joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, Education Law Center and Freedom From Religion Foundation, plus Oklahoma-based attorneys Odom & Sparks PLLC and J. Douglas Mann, in filing the lawsuit OKPLAC, Inc. v. Statewide Virtual Charter School Board. The suit was filed on behalf of nine Oklahoma residents and a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting public education in Oklahoma.

These Oklahomans are asking a state court to stop officials from sponsoring and funding St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual Charter School, which was narrowly approved in a controversial 3-2 vote by the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board on June 5.

The plaintiffs are faith leaders, public school parents and public education advocates who object to their tax dollars funding a public charter school that will discriminate against students and families based on their religion and LGBTQ+ status, fail to serve students with disabilities adequately and indoctrinate students by proselytizing them in one religion. The plaintiffs say all these things are in violation of Oklahoma law, as well as our country’s promises of church-state separation and public schools that are open to all.

“The very idea of a public charter school funded by taxpayers and promoting a religion as part of its teaching is at its core illegal. It is the antithesis of public. No parent or taxpayer should be forced to fund someone else’s religious faith,” said Erin Brewer of Oklahoma City, vice chair of lead plaintiff OKPLAC, the Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee. OKPLAC is a nonprofit that serves as an umbrella organization for local parent legislative action committees that represent over 200,000 Oklahoma public-school students and their parents.

“There is no place in the state of Oklahoma for a religious, exclusionary school funded by tax dollars,” Brewer added. “The parents of OKPLAC will always seek what is best for students no matter their faith, economic status, geographic location, orientation, or ability just as they have been promised in our state’s constitution.”

The lawsuit demonstrates that the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board violated the Oklahoma Constitution, the Oklahoma Charter Schools Act and the board’s own regulations when it approved St. Isidore’s application.

Those violations include:

St. Isidore plans to discriminate in its policies and practices based on religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and other protected characteristics. Students could be denied admission, disciplined or even expelled if they or their family members are LGBTQ+, a different religious faith or do not otherwise conform to certain Catholic religious beliefs.

St. Isidore not only reserves the right to discriminate against students on the basis of disability but has failed to show that it would provide adequate services to students with disabilities.

St. Isidore plans to provide a religious education and indoctrinate its students in Catholic religious beliefs. The school’s application states that the school will “participate in the evangelizing mission of the [Catholic] Church” and will fully incorporate the Church’s teachings “into every aspect of the School,” including “all subjects” taught and all activities offered.

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City will have control over the school in violation of board regulations that require a charter school to be independent of its educational management organization.

The lawsuit urges the District Court of Oklahoma County to block St. Isidore from operating as a charter school, prevent the charter school board from entering into or implementing any contracts with St. Isidore and bar the state from funding St. Isidore.

“The very idea of a religious public school is a constitutional oxymoron,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, in a press statement. “Charter schools, like all public schools, must be open to all students, and they must be free from religious indoctrination. St. Isidore will be neither.”

“The Oklahoma Legislature created charter schools to be part of the public school system and to be open to all students,” Robert Kim, executive director of Education Law Center, said in the statement. “Allowing a religious charter school not only defies the will of the Legislature, but it also upends the very notion of public education by endorsing a school that has indicated it will refuse to abide by core principles, including non-discrimination requirements, that are essential to a public education system.”

The plaintiffs cite an array of reasons for joining the lawsuit and objecting to Oklahoma’s funding a religious public school.

Some of the plaintiffs, including Leslie Briggs and Michele Medley, have families that include LGBTQ+ children or parents and don’t want to support a school that could discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. 

“I find state-sanctioned discrimination abhorrent and refuse to accept my tax dollars being used to promote discrimination against children and families that look like mine,” Briggs said.

Medley and plaintiff Krystal Bonsall have children with disabilities; they object to funding St. Isidore, which asserts the right to deny admission or an adequate education to children with disabilities. “St. Isidore should not be allowed to divert scarce resources away from public schools that are open to all children regardless of ability, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion,” Bonsall said.

Other plaintiffs have been vocal advocates for public education, including Erika Wright, the founder and leader of the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition; Brenda Lené, founder and operator of a Facebook group whose 25,000-plus members have provided more than $100,000 in school supplies to teachers; Melissa Abdo, treasurer of OKPLAC and a current member of both her local public school board and the Board of Directors of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association; and Briggs, who is the legal director of the Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.

“Oklahoma’s public schools are among the lowest funded in the nation. Our state cannot afford to divert taxpayer dollars to unconstitutional religious schools,” said Wright. “Due to high populations of poverty, rural public schools are more dependent on our state dollars than their suburban counterparts. Our rural schools are particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of state funding loss. Public schools are the heartbeat of rural culture and public education dollars must be protected for inclusive, accountable public schools that welcome and serve all students.”

Several faith leaders also are serving as plaintiffs, including the Rev. Dr. Lori Walke, senior minister of Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City and a member of AU’s Faith Advisory Council; Dr. Bruce Prescott, a retired Baptist minister and retired educator who served as executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists; and the Rev. Dr. Mitch Randall, the CEO of Good Faith Media, who has served as a church pastor and the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

“As a pastor, I care deeply about religious freedom,” Walke said. “But creating a religious public charter school is not religious freedom. Forcing taxpayers to fund a religious school that will be a ‘place of evangelization’ for one specific religion is not religious freedom. Diverting scarce public education resources to a religious school that can discriminate against children, families and staff is not religious freedom. True religious freedom requires separation of church and state, and our democracy requires public education that is open to all.”

Randall, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, said his Christian faith and his Indigenous identity offer him a unique perspective on religious freedom and church-state separation: “Coming from the Baptist tradition, the separation of church and state is a bedrock principle protecting religious liberty for every citizen. As an Indigenous person and great-grandson of a boarding school resident at Chilocco, Okla., it is appalling to think state leaders would reopen a door to a time when tax dollars were used to publicly fund the advancement of religion. These are two reasons our state’s founders wisely prohibited the use of taxpayer dollars to fund religious instruction.”

The faith leaders, along with several plaintiffs who are Catholic or whose children have attended private Catholic schools, offer a strong remonstrance to the claim by St. Isidore supporter Ryan Walters, Oklahoma’s state superintendent of public instruction, who in April insulted several faith leaders and others who spoke out against St. Isidore as “radical leftists” who hate the Catholic Church. Walters is one of the defendants named in the lawsuit, along with the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, its five members, the Oklahoma State Department of Education and St. Isidore.

In a statement in response to AU’s lawsuit, Walters expressed his support for St. Isidore by announcing it was “time to end atheism as the state sponsored religion.” Walters also has been in the news recently for, among other controversies, advocating for the Ten Commandments to be displayed in all Oklahoma classrooms and supporting a Tulsa Public Schools board member who inappropriately led a prayer during a high school graduation ceremony.

Supporters of St. Isidore often misinterpret two recent Supreme Court decisions to justify the creation of a religious public charter school: Carson v. Makin and Espinoza v. Montana, in which the court said state programs that funnel public money to private schools must allow religious schools to participate. But those cases involved private schools. Charter schools are public schools fully funded by taxpayers; like all public schools, they must be secular and open to all students.

Even Oklahoma’s Republican Attorney General Gentner Drummond has denounced the state charter school board’s approval of St. Isidore as unconstitutional, asserting, “The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers. 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.”

Because the charter school board ignored Drummond’s legal advice when it voted to approve St. Isidore, the board had to hire new counsel to represent it on issues regarding the Catholic school. In July, members voted to add Alliance Defending Freedom to its legal team. ADF is an aggressive member of the billion-dollar Shadow Network of religious extremist organizations seeking to advance Christian Nationalism, undermine church-state separation and redefine religious freedom as a license to discriminate.

ADF isn’t the only member of the Shadow Network supporting St. Isidore. An attorney representing First Liberty Institute spoke in support of the school and offered to “personally represent” Oklahoma charter school board members who ignored Drummond’s advice. First Liberty is the organization that opposed AU in the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District case last year; the Institute represented the public school football coach who prayed on the 50-yard line with students after games.

Assisting St. Isidore with its application was the Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic. It’s affiliated with another Shadow Network organization, the Becket Fund. Notre Dame’s law clinic also has ties to several conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Officials at Notre Dame have made clear that they are looking beyond Oklahoma when they support religious public charter schools. In a February statement about St. Isidore, Notre Dame law professors said, “More states ought to follow Oklahoma’s lead,” and expressed hope “that St. Isidore may be the first of many faith-based charter schools to work with states … around the country.”

AU’s Laser connected the push for religious public charter schools to the broader Christian Nationalist attacks on public education across the country from Texas allowing public schools to replace certified school counselors with religious chaplains to new laws in Idaho and Kentucky that could allow teachers and other public school employees to pray in front of and even with students. The drive includes laws in Missouri and Louisiana permitting public schools to teach Bible classes and encompasses the many efforts to ban books and classroom lessons about race, sexual orientation, gender identity and even menstruation in public schools.

“We know religious extremists won’t stop with St. Isidore unless we stop them,” Laser said. “Today it’s one virtual charter school in Oklahoma, but tomorrow it could be your community public school. Public education across this country is in danger and so is the American experiment.”

“It’s time to fight for church-state separation like religious freedom and public education depend on it because they do.”   

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