America’s First Taxpayer-Funded Religious Charter School Due To Be Heard by Supreme Court of Oklahoma

The Catholic charter school, set to open in August, has sparked a heated debate about the First Amendment’s free exercise and establishment clauses.
Oral arguments are set for Tuesday morning after the state’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board for approving a first-of-its-kind Catholic public charter school.

As the nation’s first tax-funded religious charter school prepares to open later this year, the Oklahoma Supreme Court will hear arguments in April on a constitutional dispute in a case with nationwide implications for religious liberty.

The case, Drummond v. Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, filed by the state’s attorney general, is one of two cases related to the school — another case brought by the Oklahoma Parent Legislative Committee is pending, with further action expected in March. 

Oklahoma’s attorney general, Gentner Drummond, filed the lawsuit in October against the Oklahoma Statewide Charter School Board for approving the application of St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School.

St. Isidore is set to open in August as a first-of-its-kind taxpayer-funded religious charter school — prompted through a joint effort by the Catholic diocese of Tulsa and Archdiocese of Oklahoma City — that says it aims to give its students a “robust Catholic education” regardless of faith background.

Mr. Drummond’s office declined to comment beyond his previous statements on the case, in which he has said that “the board members who approved this contract have violated the religious liberty of every Oklahoman by forcing us to fund the teachings of a specific religious sect with our tax dollars.”

Mr. Drummond, calling himself “the defender of Oklahoma’s religious freedoms,” has repeatedly promised to take the issue to the United States Supreme Court if it comes to it.

“Today, Oklahomans are being compelled to fund Catholicism. Because of the legal precedent created by the Board’s actions, tomorrow we may be forced to fund radical Muslim teachings like Sharia law,” he said. The lawsuit argues that the state’s Constitution bans “sectarian control” of public schools and says the tax-funded Catholic school violates the Establishment Clause.

In addition to his religious liberty objections, Mr. Drummond has said it’s “an unthinkable waste of our tax dollars” and that tax funds would be better spent in public schools teaching reading skills rather than “Catholicism, Sharia law, or any other religious teaching.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom, whose attorneys are representing the charter school board, has said that opponents of the charter school are singularly focusing on one part of the First Amendment. 

“The First Amendment states, in part, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’” the group notes. “While proponents of ‘church-state separation’ often harp on the first clause of that protection, they sometimes seem to overlook the second.”

A senior counsel for ADF, Phil Sechler, tells the Sun that the First Amendment requires treating religious groups the same way as secular ones. 

“So if a state decides to open up a charter school program to private groups, as Oklahoma did, then it can’t say, ‘but only if you’re not religious,’” he says. The statewide charter school board decided that denying the school’s application would be a First Amendment violation and concluded that the school could open based on merits, he notes. 

“What the state is doing is opening up a program so that private groups can establish educational alternatives for parents. And whether that alternative is a Christian school or a Jewish school or a school that focuses on drama or math or science or some other distinctive is totally up to the people who start the school, and then it’s up to the parents whether they want to go,” Mr. Sechler says, adding that the school would only be funded to the extent that families chose to attend it. 

Though opponents of the school have said it’s a form of Christian nationalism, it’s “the opposite” of it, Mr. Sechler says — rather it’s about being neutral and not discriminating. 

As the school choice movement has taken off since the pandemic, including attention on homeschooling and voucher programs, he says this is another way for parents to have choice in education. 

“This is just one of many things that states are doing to just increase opportunities for students and parents to have the education that they think is best for them,” he notes.

A representative of St. Isidore declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

The New York Sun

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