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Oklahoma board approves state-funded religious school

By AI HEPING in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-06-07 10:52

An Oklahoma state board has approved what would be the country's first taxpayer-funded, religious charter school, despite a state law prohibiting such schools. A legal challenge to the approval could reach the US Supreme Court, and test the US Constitution's concept of separation of church and state.

On Monday, Oklahoma's Statewide Virtual Charter School Board approved the plan to create the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, in a three to two vote. The board is a state entity that considers applications for charter schools -- publicly funded but independently run -- which operate virtually in Oklahoma.

The board approved the school in defiance of an Oklahoma state law requiring public schools to be free of control from any religious sect. Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond warned the board that its approval was unconstitutional and would create a "slippery slope" toward state-funded religion.

He said in a statement shortly after the board's vote: "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."

The school would open in 2024, serving students in kindergarten through grade 12 across the state. The school's application said it aimed "to educate the entire child: soul, heart, intellect and body". It was anticipated that $23.3 million in state funding would be required over the school's first five years.

Charter schools are publicly funded, independently run schools established under the terms of a charter with a local or national authority. There are two dozen charter schools across Oklahoma, according to the state's Department of Education.

Any future court battle over St. Isidore could test the scope of the US Constitution's First Amendment "establishment clause," which restricts government officials from endorsing any one religion or promoting religion over nonreligion.

But advocates for St. Isidore of Seville said recent Supreme Court rulings state that a private entity can't be excluded from public programs, including a state's education system, on religious grounds.

The concept of a religious charter school has gained support from other Republican leaders in the state, including Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt and state schools Superintendent Ryan Walters.

"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," he said.

"Politicians in Oklahoma and some of these other states want this. They see the Supreme Court moving in that direction," said Preston Green, an education and law professor at the University of Connecticut who has written about the possibility of religious charter schools. "It has major implications nationwide''.

In April, the board rejected an application for the school over concerns with its structure of governance, its plan for special education students and its ability to keep private and public funds separate. The archdiocese adjusted and resubmitted a 400-page application, prompting Monday's vote.

During Monday's three-hour meeting, board members debated the constitutionality of approving the decision, but decided to move.

John Meiser, managing director for domestic litigation at the University of Notre Dame's Religious Liberty Clinic, said there is precedent that the school should be approved even with its religious affiliation.

"The Supreme Court has repeatedly made clear, three times in the last six years alone, that programs just like this cannot exclude religious organizations from participating. That is just fundamental First Amendment federal constitutional law," said Meiser, who assisted in the application for the school.

Archdiocese officials have said that the school will promote the Catholic faith and operate according to church doctrine, including its views on sexual orientation and gender identity, raising questions as to whether St. Isidore of Seville would abide by all federal non-discrimination requirements.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State criticized the board's approval.

The advocacy group's president and CEO Rachel Laser said in a statement that the decision violates the religious freedom of Oklahoma taxpayers and public-school communities. Laser said the group will work with state and national partners to pursue possible legal action against the decision.

"State and federal law are clear: Charter schools are public schools that must be secular and open to all students," Laser told USA TODAY in a statement. "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."

Agencies contributed to this story.

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