An Oklahoma school has become the first to dismantle the wall between church and state

Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board approved a Catholic school funded by taxpayers

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And the governor approves.
And the governor approves.
Photo: Brian Snyder (Reuters)

Oklahoma has approved America’s first publicly funded religious charter school.

After a monthslong battle, Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board yesterday (June 5) approved the establishment of St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School as an online public charter school in a 3-2 vote.

“This is a win for religious liberty and education freedom in our great state, and I am encouraged by these efforts to give parents more options when it comes to their child’s education,” Kevin Stitt, the Oklahoma governor, said.


Not everyone celebrated the approval, though. Karen Heineman of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a secular group opposing the school’s application, warned that any minority groups not represented by Catholic doctrine, such as followers of other religions and LGBT people, “should be concerned.”

Oklahoma’s approval is likely the beginning of a spate of such proposals and the tumult they will spark.


Quotable: A religious charter school is unconstitutional

“The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers. 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.”

Gentner Drummond, Oklahoma’s attorney general, who deemed the approval unconstitutional. The charter school board members have repeatedly emphasized that they voted not on the constitutionality of such a school but only on whether the application met the board’s standards. 

By the digits: Oklahoma’s first religious charter school

5-0: The vote in April when Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board rejected the first plan for the school. The board sought more details, including on the special education department.


500: The number of K-12 students St. Isidore will serve in its first year in 2024, eventually building up to 1,500

$25.7 million: The school’s projected cost to Oklahoma taxpayers over its first five years of operation


45: The number of states that authorize charter schools, all of which require them to be secular. Most, like Oklahoma, also prohibit them from being operated by or affiliated with religious organizations.

6-3: The conservative majority among Supreme Court judges, and the reason that Oklahoma church officials are happy for the case to go to before the apex court if necessary


How will Oklahoma’s religious charter school hold up in court?

Charter schools are publicly funded, independently run schools established under the terms of a charter with a local or national authority. Gengner Drummond, Oklahoma’s attorney general, who withdrew an opinion by his predecessor that opened the door to religious schools receiving public funding, said that the approval of St. Isidore violates not just Oklahoma’s constitution but also America’s First Amendment, which promotes free speech.


But the First Amendment also guarantees the “free exercise” of religion and so prohibits anti-religious discrimination by governments, argue Nicole Stelle Garnett and Richard Garnett of Notre Dame Law School, who helped the the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa with their charter school application.

The Garnetts, a husband-wife duo, also argue that “charter schools are not government schools.” Though they are publicly funded and regulated, “they enjoy meaningful independence and flexibility and are generally approved and run by private operators.”


A non-exhaustive timeline of the blurring lines between church and state

June 2017: In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v Comer, the church challenged a decision by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to exclude it from a batch of state aid. These Missouri grants were intended to help schools and nonprofits buy rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the church in a 7-2 decision.


January 2020: Montana’s legislature had, in 2015, provided tax breaks to residents if they contributed to charitable organizations providing scholarships for children. In a 5-2 decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Supreme Court held that, if a state subsidizes private education, “it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

June 2022: A 6-3 decision in Carson v. Makin requires states to fund private religious schools if they fund any other private schools, even if those religious schools would use these public funds for religious instruction and worship.


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