A statewide board in Oklahoma voted Tuesday to reject a proposal brought by the Oklahoma Catholic Conference to create a virtual, religious charter school, which would be the first of its kind in the nation if it is ultimately approved.

The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted unanimously on Tuesday to disapprove an application, first presented in February, to create St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, pending revisions.

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, which aims to run the online school in partnership with the Diocese of Tulsa, will have the opportunity to resubmit its application after addressing the board’s concerns, and the board will have 30 days to approve or deny the revised application.

Brett Farley, executive director of the Oklahoma Catholic Conference and a board member for the proposed school, told CNA it is “more often the case than not” that the charter school board disapproves the first draft of a school’s application, instead giving the school a chance to go back and address the board’s concerns. He said the plan’s backers are “not discouraged at all” and that they have already submitted some revisions to the board.

Whether the school is ultimately approved or whether its application is finally denied, there is likely to be litigation. In the U.S., charter schools are free, publicly funded schools that have more flexibility in their operations and management than traditional public schools. Oklahoma’s current rules for charter schools state that they must be “nonsectarian” in their “programs, admission policies, employment practices, and all other operations.”

The idea for St. Isidore, which would aim to serve 1,500 students online within Oklahoma by its fifth year of operation, has the backing of Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt as well as former state schools superintendent Ryan Walters. Proponents of the plan say the online school would be a boon for rural Oklahoma students who do not have a Catholic school in their area. If the state’s charter school board approves the school, it would be the first religious school to be funded as a charter.

Farley told CNA that Oklahoma’s “more favorable regulations” for charters compared with other states, as well as recent Supreme Court precedent, puts the backers of the school on “solid legal footing.”

He said their application was crafted, in part, with help from the Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Clinic. He reiterated that he believes Oklahoma’s government as it currently stands presents a “favorable environment to negotiate protections for religious liberty” to ensure that the school’s Catholic identity is not threatened by the acceptance of public funds.

The development of the Oklahoma proposal comes following two U.S. Supreme Court decisions issued in recent years that advocates say could open the door to public funding for religious charter schools. In 2020, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue found that the state’s Blaine Amendment, which prohibited religious schools from participating in a state scholarship program, violated the First Amendment.

And the court’s ruling in Carson v. Makin, issued in June 2022, struck down Maine’s policy barring students in a student-aid program from using their aid to attend “sectarian” schools, ruling that the policy violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment by identifying and excluding “otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise.”

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City pushed for the approval of the school after former Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor issued an advisory opinion late last year stating that because of the Supreme Court’s recent rulings, Oklahoma’s provisions banning religious schools from accessing public funds as charters could be unconstitutional. He cautioned that this legal change would not mean that religious schools using public funds “can necessarily operate however they want.” Current Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond withdrew his predecessor’s opinion on the matter.