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Oklahoma board approves nation’s first publicly funded religious school

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Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board approved what could become the nation’s first publicly funded religious school on Monday, June 5. The Archdiocese of Oklahoma had applied to establish the St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Charter School.

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The online public charter school would be open to students across the state in kindergarten through grade 12. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa will run the school, which will have religious lessons in the curriculum. 

In the “vision and purpose of the organization” section of its application, the archdiocese said the school “participates in the evangelizing mission of the Church and is the privileged environment in which Christian education is carried out.”

While there are other schools in the county, like some Hasidic schools in New York that are in part publicly funded, this school is different because the Oklahoma government will fully fund it. What makes it even more unique is that the school will be online.

The decision has been met with mixed reactions. Some parents are pleased to have a new option for their children, while others are concerned about the use of taxpayer dollars to fund a religious school.

“We are elated that the board agreed with our argument and application for the nation’s first religious charter school,” Brett Farley, the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, said.

In a statement, Gov. Kevin Stitt, R-Okla., described Monday’s vote as “a win for religious liberty and education freedom in our great state.”

However, Attorney General Gentner Drummond, R-Okla, had warned the board that approving the religious school violated the Oklahoma Constitution.

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

Part of that legal action is expected to come from nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The nonprofit called the vote a violation of religious freedom.

“State and federal law are clear: Charter schools are public schools that must be secular and open to all students,” Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s President and CEO Rachel Laser said 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. And the government should never force anyone to fund religious education.”

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Oklahoma is making history. It will have the nation’s first religious charter school. 

 

The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted 3-2 on Monday to approve a plan to create St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa will run the school, which will have religious lessons in the curriculum. 

 

While there are other schools in the country—like some Hasidic schools in New York—that’re, in part, publicly funded….this Oklahoma school is different because the government will *fully* fund it.

 

What makes it even more unique is that it’ll be online.

 

The decision has been met with mixed reactions. Some parents are pleased to have a new option for their children, while others are concerned about the use of taxpayer dollars to fund a religious school. 

 

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt supports the move…while Attorney General Gentner Drummond says it’s unconstitutional. Both are Republicans.

 

The nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State called it a violation of religious freedom. 

 

Saying, in a statement:

“State and federal law are clear: Charter schools are public schools that must be secular and open to all students.”

 

Americans United says it’s preparing to take legal action. The school isn’t expected to open until 2024 at the earliest.

 

And this will likely escalate the constitutional debate over funding religious education with taxpayers’ money.