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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF: Catholic charter school in OK must be rejected

FFRF warns that a constitutional showdown on public funding of parochial school education is occurring in Oklahoma, after the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa have applied to create a religious, public-funded charter school. The application, if approved, would establish the nation’s first publicly funded religious charter school.

Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, the public policy organization for the Catholic church, said he welcomes the chance for this to become a test case to examine the legal scope of the Establishment Clause.

At the hearing on April 11, where every public speaker opposed the application, the charter school board unanimously voted against the creation of St. Isidore of Seville Virtual School. Despite the consensus, the board seemed conflicted, and seemed to spoon-feed recommendations on how the church might alter its application to warrant further consideration.

The presentation made to the board left a number of questions unanswered, such as relating to special education programs, technology concerns and governance structure. The executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma could not give a straight answer on whether or not LGBTQ students and staff would be allowed in the school.

Through an open records request submitted in February, FFRF has learned that the Catholic charter school would intend to follow all laws, rules and regulations required by the state only as long as they do not conflict with Catholic law. In other words, Catholic entities in Oklahoma are not hiding that this will be a pervasively sectarian Catholic school in all respects, and they plan to ignore any laws or policies that they don’t care to follow.

FFRF had sent a 10-page memo to the executive director of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board on Jan. 4, explaining why the application is unconstitutional, contrary to then-Attorney General John O’Connor’s advisory opinion that a charter school may be religiously affiliated. Since then, O’Connor has been replaced by Attorney General Gentner Drummond, who reversed his predecessor’s opinion, saying it “misuses the concept of religious liberty by employing it as a means to justify state-funded religion.”

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has said that he “100 percent” supports the school’s approval, despite Drummond’s opinion against it.

Most of the opposition by individuals commenting on the application at the hearing came from self-identified religious people. But that didn’t stop Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters from issuing a diatribe against “radical leftists” opposing this approval because they “hate the Catholic Church.” The board chair reproved Walters, noting that his accusation was not consistent with the testimony.

The proposal is clearly unconstitutional, as FFRF’s memo laid out. The state statute specifically states that a private school cannot be converted to a charter school, that the charter school must be “equally free and open to all students as traditional public schools” with public oversight, and that charter schools cannot be sectarian.

The April 11 board meeting made two things clear: the public overwhelmingly opposes this scheme, and the approval of the application will be challenged in court, one way or another. 

It is unfortunate that Walters, as the superintendent of public instruction, seems set on tearing down secular, public education and replacing it with exclusionary, religious indoctrination at the public’s expense.

The board must fully reject this application when it comes before the board again.