A lawsuit filed July 31 in Oklahoma is seeking to block state funding for what could become the nation's first publicly funded religious charter school if it survives the legal challenge.
A state school board in Oklahoma voted in June to approve an application by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City to establish the St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Charter School.
At the time of the vote, Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, said in a statement to OSV News, "We are elated that the board agreed with our argument and application for the nation's first religious charter school."
But some education activists and proponents of the separation of church and state objected to the use of public funds for the school, and filed a lawsuit asking a state court to block them.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, Education Law Center and Freedom From Religion Foundation spearheaded the lawsuit, OKPLAC, Inc. v. Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, filed in Oklahoma County District Court in Oklahoma City.
Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement that “a school that claims to be simultaneously public and religious would be a sea change for American democracy."
"It's hard to think of a clearer violation of the religious freedom of Oklahoma taxpayers and public-school families than the state establishing a public school that is run as a religious school," Laser said. "We're witnessing a full-on assault on church-state separation and public education -- and religious public charter schools are the next frontier. America needs a national recommitment to church-state separation.”
Michael Moreland, a professor of law and religion at Villanova University, told OSV News that "the legal challenge to Oklahoma's decision to allow a religiously affiliated charter school should fail."
"Although this lawsuit is based on issues of Oklahoma state law, the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear in a series of cases that once a state decides to subsidize private education, the federal Constitution forbids discrimination against religious participants in the program," he said. "Oklahoma allows all manner of private entities to run charter schools, including for-profit schools. Having done so, it is entirely permissible -- indeed required -- to allow religious schools to participate in the program."
"Whether a charter school is a 'state actor' turns on the details of each state's charter school statute, but it looks to me quite clear that charter schools in Oklahoma are not in any traditional sense government-operated public schools," Moreland added. "Having chosen to allow subsidies for privately operated charter schools, disallowing a religious school from the program in Oklahoma is anti-religious discrimination forbidden by the First Amendment."
St. Isidore would be an online public charter school open to students throughout the state from kindergarten through high school. But the state's governor and attorney general -- both Republicans -- clashed over the decision to provide taxpayer funds for the religious school, with the attorney general calling the school board's actions "unconstitutional."
In its application, according to The Associated Press, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City said, "The Catholic school participates in the evangelizing mission of the Church and is the privileged environment in which Christian education is carried out."
"Parents continue to demand more options for their kids," Farley stated to OSV News, "and we are committed to help provide them."