Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Aug 2, 2023 / 09:30 am
Nine Oklahoma residents and several interest groups, including the ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, filed a lawsuit against state leaders to block the sponsorship and funding for the first approved Catholic charter school in the country.
The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted 3-2 in early June to approve St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, which would be the first religious and first Catholic charter school in Oklahoma and in the nation. The lawsuit, filed on July 31, asks the District Court of Oklahoma County to block state funding and prevent the school from operating as a charter school.
“It’s unconscionable for the state of Oklahoma to be funding such an obviously sectarian religious school,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said in a statement. “This cannot be allowed to go unchallenged in our secular governmental system.”
Charter schools in Oklahoma are public schools that are privately managed. The schools receive public funding through the same funding formula used for traditional public schools. They can obtain revenue from other sources but cannot charge tuition and must be operated as a nonprofit.
The lawsuit alleges that the school’s stated mission in its application conflicts with the Oklahoma Constitution’s rules for public schools and the Oklahoma Charter Schools Act’s laws specifically for charter schools.
St. Isidore’s application stated it would hire those who are “committed to living and teaching Christ’s truth as understood by the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church through actions and words.” The application adds it would “operate a school in harmony with faith and morals, including sexual morality, as taught and understood by the magisterium of the Catholic Church based upon holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition.”
The lawsuit claims that this mission violates the Oklahoma Charter Schools Act, which requires charter schools to be “nonsectarian in [their] programs, admission policies, employment practices, and all other operations.” It further alleges that it violates the state constitution, which states public schools shall be “free from sectarian control” and that public money cannot be used in “support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion.”
In addition to those complaints, the lawsuit also alleges that its policies will violate the state constitution’s prohibition on sex discrimination, which the groups interpret as including any discrimination against sexual orientation and gender identity. The lawsuit cited Catholic teachings on homosexuality and transgenderism to justify this claim.
Although the school recognized the apparent conflict with the Oklahoma Charter School Act in its application, it argued that the prohibition violates the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act and the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. It claimed that it would not only be lawful for the board to accept a religious school but that it would also be unlawful to enforce the prohibition. The school further argued that the state constitutional provisions may not apply in this situation, but if they did, they would be in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
The school also wrote in its application process that it will comply with all applicable anti-discrimination laws but noted that religious institutions are exempt from provisions that would violate their First Amendment rights.
Both Gov. Kevin Stitt and State Superintendent Ryan Walters stood firm in their support for the Catholic charter school ahead of the legal battle.
“If the Catholics want to set up a charter school specifically in McAlester, Oklahoma, to educate their community and parents choose to go there, that’s a great thing,” Stitt told reporters during a news conference July 31.
“And if the Jewish community wants to set up a Jewish charter school, that’s an awesome thing,” Stitt continued. “If the Muslims want to set up a charter school and their parents want [their children] to go there, that’s an awesome thing. Parents want to influence and they want to be involved in their kids’ lives. We need more [parental] involvement.”
Walters said the lawsuit amounted to persecution of Catholics.
“It is time to end atheism as the state-sponsored religion,” Walters said. “Suing and targeting the Catholic Virtual Charter School is religious persecution because of one’s faith, which is the very reason that religious freedom is constitutionally protected. A warped perversion of history has created a modern-day concept that all religious freedom is driven from the classrooms. I will always side for an individual’s right to choose religious freedom in education.”
Not all state leaders have been supportive, though. Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond has stated that he believes the funding of a religious charter school violates state law.
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