Oklahoma authorities approved a Catholic-led bid to open the country’s first publicly funded religious charter school, in a landmark decision that is expected to spur litigation over constitutional limits between church and state.
The split vote from the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board on Monday caps months of debate over government support for sectarian education that has divided the state’s educators and elected Republicans, including Gov. Kevin Stitt and Attorney General Gentner Drummond.
“Oklahomans support religious liberty for all and support an increasingly innovative educational system that expands choice,” Stitt said in a statement. “Today, with the nation watching, our state showed that we will not stand for religious discrimination.”
The state charter board voted against approving the application in April, though the decision allowed church leaders time to address board members’ concerns, then refile their request before Monday’s final vote.
“We are elated that the board agreed with our argument and application for the nation’s first religious charter school,” said Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, in a statement. “Parents continue to demand more options for their kids, and we are committed to help provide them.”
Catholic Church officials formally asked Oklahoma’s virtual charter school board early this year to open the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. But faith leaders, elected officials and public school advocates have urged board members to reject the proposal, drawing a rebuke from recently elected state Superintendent Ryan Walters.
“The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers,” Drummond said in a statement.
“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,” the attorney general said.
Rachel Laser, head of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, all but promised a lawsuit to challenge the vote.
“It’s hard to think of a clearer violation of the religious freedom of Oklahoma taxpayers and public-school families than the state establishing the nation’s first religious public charter school,” Laser said in a statement. “This is a sea change for American democracy.”
“In a country built on the principle of separation of church and state, public schools must never be allowed to become Sunday schools,” Laser said.
The legal battle over public religious charters could reach the U.S. Supreme Court before the Oklahoma decision is challenged. Late last month, the Biden administration urged justices to deny a conservative-led petition to review a North Carolina dress code case that has galvanized advocates who hope to clear a path to publicly-funded religious charter schools.
Two Oklahoma attorneys general have issued divided, but nonbinding, opinions on the issue. Stitt and Walters have supported the church’s application.
Stitt in February declared his “strong disagreement” with Drummond’s decision to scrap a landmark legal opinion that opened the door to publicly funded religious charter schools and also staked a claim in a legal fight over charters that could be addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
But a last-minute memorandum from the charter board’s attorney delivered just before April’s vote warned that Oklahoma’s Constitution prohibits the use of public funds for religious or sectarian purposes.
“This decision runs afoul of state law and the U.S. Constitution. All charter schools are public schools, and as such must be non-sectarian,” said Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in a statement.
“The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City is trying to make charter schools into something they are not,” she said.
The Archdiocese did not immediately respond to a request for comment.