Oklahoma Supreme Court Blocks First US Religious Public Charter School

One coalition said the ruling “safeguards public education and upholds the separation of religion and government.”

By Jessica Corbett. Published 6-25-2024 by Common Dreams

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled against St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Catholic Charter School on June 25, 2024. Photo: Brian J. Matis/CC

Faith leaders, parents, and educators on Tuesday applauded the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s ruling against the establishment of the first U.S. taxpayer-funded religious charter school—which was widely seen as a test case for Christian nationalists’ broader efforts to break down the barrier between church and state as well as further undermine public education.

The court’s decision against St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Catholic Charter School came in a case filed last October by Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond. Unlike some fellow Republicans, he argued that the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board’s approval of the online institution violated the state and federal constitutions.

“This decision is a tremendous victory for religious liberty,” Gentner said in response to the ruling. “The framers of the U.S. Constitution and those who drafted Oklahoma’s Constitution clearly understood how best to protect religious freedom: by preventing the state from sponsoring any religion at all.”

“Now Oklahomans can be assured that our tax dollars will not fund the teachings of Sharia Law or even Satanism,” he continued. “While I understand that the governor and other politicians are disappointed with this outcome, I hope that the people of Oklahoma can rejoice that they will not be compelled to fund radical religious schools that violate their faith.”

The decision was also praised by the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Education Law Center, and Freedom From Religion Foundation, which—along with local lawyers—represent Oklahomans challenging the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa’s attempt to create a publicly funded Catholic school.

“The Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision safeguards public education and upholds the separation of religion and government. Charter schools are public schools that must be secular and serve all students,” the groups—which filed a brief supporting Gentner’s suit—said in a joint statement Tuesday.

“St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, which plans to discriminate against students, families, and staff and indoctrinate students into one religion, cannot operate as a public charter school,” the coalition added. “We will continue our efforts to protect public education and religious freedom, including the separation of church and state.”

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten and AFT-Oklahoma president Mary Best similarly welcomed the decision as “a crucial victory for religious liberty, pluralism, and freedom over the forces of extremism and sectarianism.”

“One of the clearest foundations of American democracy is the freedom to practice, or not to practice, religion,” they said. “The framers never intended to require public funding of religious institutions or schools, and, in fact, religious freedom itself is reliant on the distinction. Liberty ends when someone is compelled to support another’s private beliefs, and if the attorney general had lost, Oklahoma would have been forced to siphon millions of dollars from public schools into private hands.”

“The combination of the Constitution’s free exercise clause and the concept of separation of church and state underpins our democracy, and this decision preserves that distinction,” the AFT leaders added. “This case should never have had to be brought in the first place; a charter school for religious purposes paid for by public money should have been rejected as unconstitutional from the start. If this school is kept alive through appeals, it will continue to present an existential threat to the great state of Oklahoma and to the United States writ large.”

The Oklahoman reported that “it’s a virtual certainty the ruling Tuesday will be appealed, likely to a federal court,” and shared statements from Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley and Tulsa Bishop David Konderla as well as Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, a former state education secretary who, as the newspaper noted, “tried—and failed—three times to insert himself into the legal case before the state Supreme Court.”

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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