Oklahoma Supreme Court deems state-funded religious charter school unconstitutional

The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday issued a ruling stating that the state’s approval of the first publicly funded religious charter school in the nation violates state and federal law, and is deemed unconstitutional.

State Attorney General Gentner Drummond filed a lawsuit against the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board on Oct. 20 following the board’s 3-2 vote in favor of establishing St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. The state Supreme Court, which took on original jurisdiction in the matter, conducted oral arguments regarding a contract between the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board and a religious charter school on April 2.

The case has garnered attention due to its religious implications within a public charter school framework and the potential for a precedent-setting judgment. Charter schools, though privately operated, receive public funding. To date, schools with a strong religious focus have not existed, largely due to the controversy surrounding the use of public funds for parochial education. These schools have the authority to determine their own curriculum and teaching methodologies.

The court has granted the school a 10-day period to request a rehearing of the case, which is anticipated to be contested.

“We will explore all legal avenues and remain committed to our belief that St. Isidore could offer significant value to students, irrespective of their socioeconomic status, race, or faith,” Archbishop Paul Coakley of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and Bishop David Konderla of the Diocese of Tulsa articulated in a joint statement following Tuesday’s ruling.

Debates center on the religious aspect of Oklahoma’s publicly funded charter school

Lawyers representing the virtual charter school board and St. Isidore asserted that the school, set to be the nation’s first Catholic virtual charter school, would function as a private entity rather than a public school.

In contrast, Justice James Winchester expressed disagreement in his opinion.

“According to Oklahoma law, a charter school is deemed a public institution,” he stated. “Consequently, a charter school must be nonsectarian. … St. Isidore cannot justify its establishment by citing Free Exercise rights as a religious entity.”

The court instructed the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board to annul its contract with St. Isidore. Six justices concurred with Winchester’s ruling, while one partially agreed and dissented partially. One justice dissented entirely, and another recused himself.

The school’s principal, Misty Smith, described the Supreme Court’s decision as “an obstacle for Oklahoma K-12 students and for the concept of free choice and equal opportunities in education.”

In a released statement, Smith affirmed her commitment to persist in the battle and expressed hope that the court’s “mistake can be rectified and that St. Isidore can help pave the way for a future where the needs of all Oklahoma students and families are met, regardless of their backgrounds, income levels, or beliefs.”

Opponents of publicly funded religious school laud ‘unconstitutional’ decision

Multiple organizations representing faith leaders, public school parents, and advocates for public education that took legal action to prevent the state from endorsing and financing St. Isidore released a joint statement commending the court’s rulings on Tuesday. They alleged that the school intended “to discriminate against students, families, and staff, and indoctrinate students into one religion.”

“The Oklahoma Supreme Court’s judgment safeguards public education and upholds the separation of religion and government. Charter schools, being public institutions, must be secular and cater to all students,” stated the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Education Law Center, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a national non-profit organization advocating for charter schools, echoed the sentiments expressed by the groups.

“We insist on granting every charter school student the same federal and state civil rights and constitutional protections as their counterparts in district schools,” noted Eric Paisner, acting CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in a press release.

USA TODAY

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