July/August 2023 Church & State Magazine - July/August 2023

Okla. officials disregard AU’s warnings, vote to create religious charter school

 

Americans United and allies announced plans to take legal action after officials in Oklahoma ignored repeated warnings from AU and voted in June to create the nation’s first religious charter school.

The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted 3-2 June 5 to grant a charter to the Saint Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual Charter School. The school, which will be under the control of the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, will, according to church officials, be a “place of evangelization” that “participates in the evangelizing mission of the Church.”

The archdiocese’s application states that it will “educate its students for freedom, understanding that ‘in order to be authentic, freedom must measure itself according to the truth of the person, the fullness of which is revealed in Christ.’”

Church officials have also refused to rule out imposing discriminatory policies on students and staff. A St. Isidore representative confirmed to the media in February that, in making admissions decisions on LGBTQ+ students, “We would have to look at the specifics.  It’s not something we haven’t dealt with in our own Catholic schools before, because we have, and we do it on a case-by-case basis.”

Charter schools are public institutions that are free from some of the regulations that are imposed on traditional public schools. But AU says this does not mean they can promote religion.

“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,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “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.”

Added Laser, “State and federal law are clear: Charter schools are public schools that must be secular and open to all students. No public-school family should fear that their child will be required by charter schools to take theology classes or be expelled for failing to conform to religious doctrines. And the government should never force anyone to fund religious education. In a country built on the principle of separation of church and state, public schools must never be allowed to become Sunday schools.”

Americans United had repeatedly warned Oklahoma officials not to grant approval to the school. In letters, memos and in-person testimony, AU provided detailed legal analysis explaining why the board should reject the application from the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and Diocese of Tulsa to create the charter school.

“Oklahoma charter schools are public schools,” observed AU attorneys in a Jan. 31 letter to state officials. “Thus the U.S. Constitution requires that they remain neutral on issues of religion and prohibits them from teaching religion. This fundamental safeguard is critical to protecting religious freedom and is part of the rich history and tradition of this country. We live in a religiously diverse nation, and our public schools must be open and welcoming to all. Students and their families — not school officials — should get to make their own decisions about religion. And these protections also ensure that the government does not tax any of us to fund the teaching of religion.”

AU also warned that the creation of the school would violate the Oklahoma Constitution and the Oklahoma law that allows for charter schools.

While Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) has backed the creation of the religious charter school, Attorney General Gentner Drummond (R) has taken the opposite view.

“The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers,” Drummond said in a press statement after the vote. “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.”

The vote to create the Catholic charter school may not have been legal. Shortly before the meeting, a new member, Brian Bobek, was appointed to fill the slot of outgoing board member Barry Beauchamp. Bobek subsequently provided the crucial third vote to approve the charter. But the attorney general’s office has argued that under state law, Bobek is not eligible to serve until November. 

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