‘Slippery Slope’: Oklahoma Supreme Court Rules Against Taxpayer-Funded Catholic Charter School

The closely-watched case over the first-of-its-kind school sparked renewed debate over religious freedom in public schools.

AP/Sue Ogrocki, file
Oklahoma's attorney general, Gentner Drummond, on February 1, 2023. AP/Sue Ogrocki, file

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has ruled that a first-of-its-kind Catholic public charter school is unconstitutional, in a closely-watched case that sparked renewed debate over the First Amendment’s religious freedom protections.

St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School — a religious school that said it would be open to students of any faiths but would offer a “robust Catholic education” — had been set to open later this year and had already received more than 200 applications.

The Sooner State’s Supreme Court held on Tuesday, however, that the school’s contract violated the Oklahoma Charter Schools Act, the state Constitution, and the federal Establishment Clause, as a state can’t use public funds to establish a religious institution. 

“Although a public charter school, St. Isidore is an instrument of the Catholic church, operated by the Catholic church, and will further the evangelizing mission of the Catholic church in its educational programs,” the court wrote in its 6-2 decision, with one recusal.

The court added that “enforcing the St. Isidore Contract would create a slippery slope and what the framers’ warned against — the destruction of Olahoma’s freedom to practice religion without fear of governmental intervention.”

The case, Drummond v. Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, came as religion in public schools has been thrust into the spotlight following several Supreme Court rulings indicating a less restrictive stance on the matter.

Most recently, Louisiana is garnering national attention for a new law requiring the Ten Commandments to be displayed in all public school classrooms. A lawsuit was filed on Monday by several Louisiana families, represented by advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, arguing that displaying the Ten Commandments within the walls of public schools violates the First Amendment.

When reached by the Sun, St. Isidore’s declined to comment about whether it will appeal the ruling, but its public statement indicates that it will keep fighting to open its doors to the public. 

“Today’s decision is a setback for Oklahoma K-12 students and to the ideal of free choice and open opportunity in education,” the principal of St. Isidore, Misty Smith, said in a statement.

“I, however, will not give up hope that the Court’s error may be corrected,” she said, “and that St. Isidore will help open the path toward a future where the needs of all Oklahoma students and families are fulfilled, regardless of their background, income, or beliefs.” 

“We will remain steadfast as we seek to right this wrong and to join Oklahoma’s great diversity of charter schools serving all families in the state,” the senior director of Catholic education for the Oklahoma City archdiocese, Lara Schuler, said. 

Oklahoma’s attorney general, Gentner Drummond, filed the lawsuit against the school in October, arguing that it violated separation of church and state. 

“This decision is a tremendous victory for religious liberty,” he said following 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.” 

Throughout the lawsuit, Mr. Drummond had been vocal in his concerns that allowing the Catholic school would open the door to a slew of “radical” religious charters at  taxpayers’ expense. 

The Alliance Defending Freedom — which represented the state charter school board that approved St. Isidore’s application — wasn’t immediately available for comment.

A senior counsel for the alliance, Phil Sechler, previously told the Sun that the school was constitutional because the First Amendment requires treating religious institutions in the same way as non-religious groups.

“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 said.

The New York Sun

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