Oklahoma greenlights first religious charter school in US; secular group vows to sue

Wikimedia Commons/Rantemario
Wikimedia Commons/Rantemario

The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board has greenlit the first religious charter school in the United States, a decision that is expected to lead to litigation from a church-state separation group.   

On Monday, the educational body voted 3-2 to approve the charter application for an online school, St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School.

The newly approved St. Isidore will be overseen by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa. The school will start holding classes in the fall of 2024, reported The Washington Post.

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Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt released a statement Monday, commending 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," stated Stitt.

"Oklahomans support religious liberty for all and support an increasingly innovative educational system that expands choice. Today, with the nation watching, our state showed that we will not stand for religious discrimination."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State vowed to file litigation against the state over the decision.

Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser blasted the decision, saying in a statement Monday that it is "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."

"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," Laser said.

"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."

The Virtual Charter School Board had initially rejected St. Isidore's application in April, citing multiple points of concern with the charter school request, among them questions of constitutionality.

The board had kept open the possibility that the Catholic school could reapply for charter school status, giving the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City 30 days to revise and resubmit its application.

Last year, then Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor and Solicitor General Zach West released an opinion arguing that state prohibitions against faith-based charter schools might not be lawful.

O'Connor and West cited recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, such as last year's David Carson et al. v. A. Pender Makin, to argue that Christian educational institutions can't be barred from public funding.

In the Carson decision, the high court ruled 6-3 that Maine's state-operated tuition assistance program could not stop parents from using the funds for schools with religious instruction.

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