'Unconstitutional' religious charter school immediately hit by legal challenges in Oklahoma

Within minutes of a state charter school board in Oklahoma approving a plan on Monday to open what would be the first religious charter school in the United States, advocates for the nation's bedrock laws separating church and state announced plans to file a legal challenge against the proposal.

Allowing the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and Diocese of Tulsa to open a taxpayer-funded virtual charter school in which religious education would be a key part of the curriculum would mark "a sea change for American democracy," said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Going against the advice of its own legal counsel and disregarding extensive testimony and legal analysis from Americans United regarding why the creation of the school would violate the U.S. Constitution, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted 3-2 to allow the religious groups to open St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School.

The school would be entirely government-funded, but like other charter schools—which have been criticized by public education advocates—it would be independently managed, in this case by the Catholic archdiocese and diocese.

"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," said Laser. "No public school family should fear that their child will be required by charter schools to take theology classes or be expelled for failing to conform to religious doctrines. And the government should never force anyone to fund religious education."

"In a country built on the principle of separation of church and state, public schools must never be allowed to become Sunday schools," she added.

The ACLU said it would join Americans United in challenging the plan.

Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt applauded the decision of the board—which is made up of his appointees—but state Attorney General Gentner Drummond, also a Republican, said it was "extremely disappointing that board members violated their oath in order to fund religious schools with our tax dollars."

The U.S. Supreme Court has handed down two rulings in recent years signaling that its right-wing majority could rule in favor of the religious charter school if a case reaches the high court. Last year the court ruled 6-3 that the state of Maine was not permitted to exclude religious schools from a state tuition program, and in 2020 it ruled 5-4 that states must allow private schools to participate in state scholarships.

"Not long ago, this would have been [dead on arrival]" at the Supreme Court, said Los Angeles Times legal affairs columnist Harry Litman. "But they're banking on the Supreme Court to break down the wall between church and state."

The Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition called the board's decision "a loss for American values, the rule of law, and our Oklahoma Constitution."

"Three unelected voices in the state of Oklahoma have put the separation of church and state in peril for the entire nation," said the group. "Oklahoma's public schools are among the lowest funded in the nation. We cannot afford to divert dollars to unconstitutional religious schools. Public education dollars must be protected for accountable public schools that welcome and serve all students."