An elementary school student attends school remotely.​

An elementary school student attends school remotely.

(Photo: RichLegg/Getty Images)

Faith Leaders, Parents, and Public Education Advocates Sue Over First US Religious Charter School

"Governmental sanctioning of a religious charter school drives a stake in the heart of religious liberty and seeks to eviscerate the fundamental precept of the separation of church and state," said the head of a plaintiff group.

A nonprofit that supports public education and nine Oklahoma residents on Monday filed a lawsuit to stop the state from sponsoring and funding the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, the first religious charter school in the United States.

A legal challenge has been brewing since the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board approved the online institution in a 3-2 vote last month. St. Isidore, a "collaborative effort between the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa" intended to provide "a quality Catholic education" to children statewide, is set to open for the 2024-25 academic year.

"Religious liberty allows us to worship according to our faith. But forcing Oklahomans to fund religious teachings with their tax dollars is not religious freedom. It is state-sponsored religion, which violates the Oklahoma Constitution and the Oklahoma Charter Schools Act," said Misty Bradley, chair of the Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee (OKPLAC), in a statement.

"Governmental sanctioning of a religious charter school drives a stake in the heart of religious liberty and seeks to eviscerate the fundamental precept of the separation of church and state," added Bradley, whose group has joined faith leaders, parents, and public education advocates in challenging the Oklahoma board's recent approval of St. Isidore.

The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), Education Law Center, and Freedom From Religion Foundation, who are assisted by Oklahoma-based counsel Odom & Sparks PLLC and J. Douglas Mann.

As Daniel Mach and Heather L. Weaver, respectively the director and a senior staff attorney at the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, explained in a Monday blog post:

Oklahoma's public school system includes both brick-and-mortar and virtual charter schools. State statutory provisions and the state constitution require these schools and all other public schools to remain open to all students—regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, religion, LGBTQ status, disability, or any other characteristic—and to teach a nonreligious curriculum. St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School will do neither...

In its application, St. Isidore asserts that it... will participate "in the evangelizing mission of the church." To that end, the school's application makes clear that it will discriminate in admissions and student discipline, as necessary to satisfy the Catholic Church's religious beliefs. This means that students could be denied admission or punished based on their religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other failures to comply with Catholic doctrine. St. Isidore even refused to certify that it will not discriminate against students with disabilities if accommodating a student would violate Catholic beliefs. The school also plans to discriminate in employment.

"I am invested in secular public schools because I believe in the Oklahoma Constitution and a founding principle of our nation: Religious freedom can only be preserved if the state does not establish or support any religion," said plaintiff Leslie Briggs.

Briggs is the legal director of Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, and she and her wife have a child who will soon enter public schools. She added that "I also 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."

Other plaintiffs include a mother of two children on the autism spectrum, a parent of a public school student with disabilities, and a reverend who is also the great-grandson of a former Chilocco Indian Agricultural School resident.

Plaintiff Brenda Lené, founder and operator of the Facebook group "Oklahoma Education Needs/Donations" and parent of a child in public school, warned that "giving public tax dollars to a school like St. Isidore not only opens the door to discrimination, but it also takes even more funding from our secular public schools and teachers, which will have a disastrous effect on the already underfunded public education system and create more financial inequality."

St. Isidore is expected to cost taxpayers more than $26 million over its first five years of operation, according to The Oklahoman.

The newspaper noted conflicting comments from a representative for local Catholic leaders and the Republican state attorney general:

"News of a suit from AU comes as no surprise since they have indicated early in this process their intentions to litigate," said Brett Farley, a lobbyist representing the diocese and archdiocese. "We remain confident that the Oklahoma court will ultimately agree with the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in favor of religious liberty."

The nation's high court recently ruled private schools could receive public funds from school voucher programs and government grants. Attorney General Gentner Drummond, disagreeing with his predecessor John O'Connor, argued these cases have "little precedential value" to charter school law and no legal history exists to prove charter schools are private.

Drummond had called out the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board after the June vote, declaring that "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," he said.

The Oklahoman reported that after a 3-1 vote last week, the conservative Christian law firm Alliance Defending Freedom will represent the board in the case, as Drummond has withdrawn his office's legal services for matters related to St. Isidore.

Though filed in state court—specifically, in the District Court of Oklahoma County—the case is expected to draw attention from across the country. It comes after the U.S. Supreme Court last month declined to hear a challenge to a federal appeals court ruling that charter schools receiving public funds, like traditional public schools, must abide by the national Constitution and law.

"A school that claims to be simultaneously public and religious would be a sea change for American democracy," AU president and CEO Rachel Laser said Monday. "It's hard to think of a clearer violation of the religious freedom of Oklahoma taxpayers and public school families than the state establishing a public school that is run as a religious school."

"We're witnessing a full-on assault on church-state separation and public education—and religious public charter schools are the next frontier," Laser stressed. "America needs a national recommitment to church-state separation."

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